Toronto Zoo devastated by sudden, unexplained death of baby red panda

Over the weekend, a red panda known as Baby Spice, was doing just fine.

He was born at the Toronto Zoo just three months ago and showed no signs of illness on Oct. 22 both at morning and evening check-ins. But something suddenly changed — and the zoo has no idea why.

“On Sunday morning, Wildlife Care staff heard the cub vocalizing and then found him lying on his side and extremely weak,” the zoo said Monday. “He was rushed to the Wildlife Health Centre (WHC) for immediate treatment by our veterinary team where he was put on oxygen, administered fluids, given antibiotics, and warmed up as his temperature was low. He was stable for a short period of time but then took a turn for the worse, at which point he stopped breathing and had no pulse.”

Resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful.

“It is with profound sadness we announce the unexpected passing of our red panda cub affectionately known as Baby Spice,” the zoo posted on social media. “Our teams are hurting and grieving from this incredibly sudden loss.”

A necropsy was done and samples have been sent for additional testing to help zookeepers understand the possible causes of his “rapid decline.”

The zoo had recently launched a naming contest for the cub. It is only being announced now that zookeepers had been calling him Dash.

“Dash brought us keepers so much joy,” his keepers said in a statement. “It was wonderful to see his mom, Paprika, become such an amazing mother and to see the bond develop between her and Dash. We enjoyed watching him grow and meet every milestone with gusto. Every daily weigh-in was the highlight of our day and we loved seeing his little ‘Yoda’ face every time we opened the nestbox. To watch as he grew from a hesitant cub to a brave little boy will be one of our fondest memories. We are sad that our time with him was so short but we will cherish every moment we shared with him.”

Baby Spice weighed 2,050 grams on Sept. 23. Photo: Toronto Zoo/Facebook

Staff are monitoring Paprika. So far, they said, she is doing well and adjusting to not having her baby around.

Red pandas are a difficult species to breed.

Dash was born July 13, becoming only the third red panda birth at the Toronto Zoo in over 25 years.

He was also the first cub for 4-year-old mom, Paprika.

Toronto Zoo did not have success with breeding this “complicated” species.

For the past decade, its reproductive sciences team has been studying pregnancy-related hormone changes to better understand the lack of breeding success to improve the odds.

Baby Spice on Oct. 13. Photo: Toronto Zoo/Facebook

While pregnancy is challenging, studies have shown about 40 per cent of cubs die within one year of birth.

“These low survival rates have a significant impact on the growth of the red panda population under human care,” the zoo explained. “Wild red panda cubs face similar mortality rates due to their vulnerable state at birth and the on-going anthropogenic pressures.”

The Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s Red Panda Species Survival Program told the zoo in scenarios like this, nothing more could be done to save Dash. Officials hope to find out more about what happened exactly him.

But for now, they are in mourning.

“We are grateful to have such dedicated staff, who continue to provide excellent care to our animals amidst the heartache of this sudden loss,” the zoo said.

Zoos around the world and animal lovers are sending their condolences.

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Recovering newspaper reporter.

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