Elderly Sloth Bear Dies at National Zoo

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It's a sad day at the National Zoo. Merlin, the National Zoo's 27-year-old sloth bear, died this morning after a 48-hour illness. Merlin was born at the Zoo in 1981, and helped to introduce millions of visitors to this fascinating, but unfamiliar, bear species.

On Monday morning, Merlin underwent a routine physical examination. The examination went well, but Merlin did not fully recover from the anesthetic by the afternoon. Veterinarians also noticed that he had vomited some fluid with blood in it. Because of his medical history—he suffered a gastric volvulus, “twisted stomach" in 1994—staff members evaluated him again on Monday.

Veterinarians did blood work, ultrasounds and radiographs and decided that he needed surgery to correct a partially twisted spleen. After the procedure, Merlin seemed to be getting better, but further blood work revealed possible circulatory shock and renal failure. Staff stayed with Merlin 24 hours a day for two days until he passed away this morning.

Merlin fathered seven cubs, the youngest of which—3-year-old Balawat—left the National Zoo earlier this year to join a female cub at the Akron Zoo in Ohio. Balawat and Merlin bonded last fall after Hana, Balawat's mother, was not receptive to mating with Merlin. Zookeepers introduced the two males last October. It took a month or so, but the pair eventually hit it off. Staff found them playing together for the first time in November. After playing, the keepers reported, the two sloth bears curled up together and took a nap.

Sloth bears, who use their curved claws to pick up ants and termites, are native to the Indian sub-continent. They use their long snout and lips to create a vacuum-like seal to suck up the insects. Sloth bears are the only bears to carry young on their backs. National Zoo scientists, engaged in sloth bear conservation efforts since the 1970s, estimate that about 6,000 to 11,000 sloth bears remain in the wild. The animals face critical loss of habitat and as a result, the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species categorizes sloth bears as vulnerable.

Merlin's death at age 27 —the oldest sloth bear in captivity died at 29—will be reviewed. A necropsy will be performed to determine the exact cause of Merlin's death, but results won't be available for a few weeks. Two female sloth bears, Hana and Khali, remain on exhibit.

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