Why Are Baby Animals Dying at the National Zoo?

WASHINGTON - FEBRUARY 04: Two of four new cheetah cubs, born November 23, 2004, lean against their mother Tumai during a preview showing at the National Zoo February 4, 2005 in Washington DC. The four cheetah cubs, each of which currently weighs about 10 pounds, will go on public display February 5th. 
National Journal
Clare Foran and Patrick Reis
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Clare Foran Patrick Reis
April 2, 2014, 1 a.m.

The Na­tion­al Zoo has a hor­ri­fy­ing tale to tell.

In late Decem­ber, one of the zoo’s sloth bears gave birth to three cubs. But then — in a grue­some turn — the moth­er ate two of her cubs with­in a week of their birth, for­cing zoo­keep­ers to res­cue the third.

The cub deaths, first made pub­lic in late March, were the latest in a string of widely pub­li­cized an­im­al fatal­it­ies at the in­sti­tu­tion. The zoo lost two ante­lopes in the past year when the an­im­als ran head­long in­to en­clos­ure walls. And two of four chee­tah cubs died dur­ing child­birth in April 2012 at the zoo’s Con­ser­va­tion Bio­logy In­sti­tute in Vir­gin­ia.

The highest-pro­file death of all ar­rived a few months later, in Septem­ber, when the zoo an­nounced the birth of a baby panda — a rare feat among the fam­ously hes­it­ant-to-breed bears — only to have the in­fant die six days later. (The zoo has had more suc­cess since and is now home to the 7-month-old panda cub Bao Bao, which ven­tured out­side for the time Tues­day.)

With the spate of deaths — and giv­en the cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing the death of the sloth bear cubs — one may be temp­ted to ques­tion if the zoo is to blame. But the truth, bio­lo­gists say, is more dis­turb­ing: The nat­ur­al king­dom is a rough, bru­tal, and fatal place, even in con­trolled en­vir­on­ments like zoos, and even for spe­cies that are cute and cuddly.

“Car­ni­vores will some­times eat their young,” Pamela Baker-Mas­son, a spokes­wo­man for the zoo, said when asked about the fate of the sloth bear cubs. “There are a lot of reas­ons why this might hap­pen.”

So what would pos­sess a par­ent to eat its off­spring?

Ac­cord­ing to Na­tion­al Zoo cur­at­or Tony Barthel, it all boils down to evol­u­tion. If a bear cub dies, the an­im­al car­cass left be­hind could at­tract pred­at­ors. It also makes a meal. As a res­ult, the moth­er may eat its young to pro­tect it­self and the rest of the lit­ter.

“If a bear thinks its off­spring is dy­ing, it will of­ten aban­don the cub, and usu­ally when they’re young, that in­volves con­sum­ing them,” Barthel said. “That might sound cruel but an­im­als can’t af­ford to need­lessly waste re­sources. It’s part of nature.”

It’s dif­fi­cult to say how of­ten this oc­curs — either in cap­tiv­ity or in the wild — be­cause bears typ­ic­ally give birth in se­cluded areas.

The de­mise of the Smith­so­ni­an bear cubs — ad­ded to oth­er an­im­al deaths at the zoo due to ill­ness or in­jury — have made head­lines. Zoo of­fi­cials, however, note that they have not had a high­er than nor­mal rate of in­cid­ents. In­stead, the deaths have come among high­er pro­file fauna.

“We have not had a spike in an­im­al deaths,” Baker-Mas­son said. “Deaths hap­pen here for lots of dif­fer­ent reas­ons, and many of them are due to nat­ur­al causes.”

And in the sad story of the sloth bear cubs, there is a sil­ver lin­ing.

The third cub, which zoo keep­ers res­cued, is now re­ceiv­ing around-the-clock care at the in­sti­tu­tion — a situ­ation that has cre­ated a unique op­por­tun­ity for keep­ers to get to know the cub.

“She’s pretty ram­bunc­tious,” Barthel said. “And she seems to be thriv­ing. She’s en­er­get­ic and ex­plor­ing more and more of her en­clos­ure each day.”

Cur­at­ors plan to gradu­ally re­in­tro­duce the cub to oth­er bears at the zoo and hope that she can one day live on her own in cap­tiv­ity.

“We share everything that goes on here. There are won­der­ful stor­ies and tra­gic ones and that can cer­tainly draw a lot of at­ten­tion to the zoo,” Barthel said. “In this case you have this re­si­li­ent cub but you also have this sad real­ity and that re­minds us all how tough life in the wild can be.”

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