Keepers hand-raising sloth bear cub at National Zoo

WASHINGTON (WUSA9) -- The Smithsonian National Zoo says the decision for keepers to hand-raise a female sloth bear cub instead of leaving her with her mother more than likely saved her life.

According to a Smithsonian National Zoo press release, the cub sloth is now very active and growing as the result of the care she has received for the past two-and-a-half months.

Zoo officials said the cub was one of three cubs born to Khali in December and she is the only cub that lived longer than seven days. The mother ingested the first cub about 20 minutes after she gave birth. Officials said it is not uncommon for carnivores, to eat stillborn cubs, or even live cubs if they or the mother are unable to fully function.

Khali, who is an experienced mother, according to zoo officials seemed to be attentive to her two remaining cubs, and the keepers kept an eye on her during and after her births. Zoo officials said the mother ingested a second cub only a week later and then spent a lot of time away from her last cub on January 6, which is not normal for a sloth bear with a newborn cub.

"Our team is always prepared to intervene and hand-rear a cub if it appears that a cub is not thriving," Tony Barthel said, curator of Asia Trail. "We already had developed a plan for hand-rearing before Khali gave birth, and our ability to act quickly was critical."

That is when the keepers decided the best way to keep the cub alive would be to take the cub away from her mother. Zoo keepers said it was determined that she had hypothermia and was weak. The mother had not been cradling her, which would have helped regulate the cub's temperature and keep her warm, officials said.

The cub was treated with antibiotics, vitamins and fluid therapy. She was also put into an incubator to help stabilize her body temperature.

The zoo then started to nurse her from a bottle for the next few days. The cub was then healthy enough to leave the hospital and was returned to the sloth bear habitat.

Zoo keepers were not able to return her to her mother however.

Keepers did research in order to find other sloth bear cubs that were being hand-raised, however were unable to find any. A team of National Zoo keepers, vets and nutritionists they would be surrogates for the cub.

"Carrying the cub around for hours at a time gave us a unique opportunity to bond with her," Stacey Tabellario said, animal keeper. "We quickly became in-tune with her vocalizations, movements and sleep patterns. With past cubs at this stage, we mostly only viewed them via closed-circuit television, so this has been a great chance to learn more about cub development."

The keepers stay with the sloth bear the 24 hours a day and bottle feed her at regular intervals, zoo officials said.

Once the cub went back to the sloth bear habitat, keepers bottle-fed her seven times every day, according to officials. It then went down to six and is now at five times a day.

The cub opened her eyes on January 26. Keepers made sure to simulate the same type of interactions she would have had with her mother by carrying the cub in a baby sling with them during their daily routines.

Keepers have been able to play with the cub in her den now that she is bigger and the play area encourages natural behavior like climbing.

"It is always preferable for cubs to be raised by their mothers, but that was not possible this time," said keeper and sloth bear expert Mindy Babitz. "We had to become this cub's 'mothers.' We are caring for her needs around the clock—not just physical, but social, cognitive and emotional needs; it's very encouraging to watch her develop and grow."

The team wants the cub to interact with other sloth bears and will be allowing her to explore the indoor dens of the zoo's adult sloth bears while they are outside, officials said.

The plan is to visually introduce her to adults within the next few months, according to officials. If that goes well then they may be able to reintroduce her to her mother or father.

Zoo officials said the cub will probably not be on exhibit until summer.


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