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Veterinary technician Lacey Hickle feeds one of two three-month-old male red panda cubs by hand outside of their enclosure at the Chattanooga Zoo on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The cubs' mother, Maina, was found dead in her enclosure on Saturday, but the cubs were not yet old enough to be completely weaned and now require hand-feeding 3 times a day.

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Red panda dies at zoo; keepers seek to raise her cubs

Maina, an endangered red panda who recently bore two sons and has lived at the Chattanooga Zoo since 2014, died unexpectedly Saturday.

No one knows the cause of death, said Chattanooga Zoo CEO and President Dardenelle Long during a news conference Thursday.

Maina, 3, seemed healthy. She had been nursing her two 3-month-old cubs and all seemed well Saturday morning.

But later that day, zoo employees found Maina lying lifelessly in the outdoor red panda exhibit.

Employees immediately attempted CPR and rushed her to the Regional Institute for Veterinary Emergencies and Referrals (RIVER) animal hospital in hopes of reviving her, but it was too late, Long said.

Necropsy results can take up to 10 weeks, she said.

In the wild, the average life expectancy of red pandas is eight to 10 years. But many experts say animals in captivity live longer, according to previous reports. Three red pandas have died at the zoo since 2012.

Zoo staff and several Chattanooga Zoo Facebook friends on Thursday mourned the red panda's death; more than 770 people responded to an announcement about Maina's passing within less than 24 hours after it was posted.

"Poor baby, What a precious little face," wrote Stacy Clay Jackson.

April Parrish wrote: "Maina was one in a million. I am so saddened to hear this news and I can't imagine what Betsy [Eckermann] and the other keepers and zoo staff are going through." Eckermann is the handler for the panda exhibit.

Long said the red panda exhibit is one of the most popular features at the zoo. She said the staff is sad, but they have little time to grieve because they are still in crisis concerning Maina's two cubs, which haven't been named yet. Long isn't sure they're going to survive.

Their mother was still weaning them when she died. They were interested in bamboo, but hadn't learned how to eat it yet. At 3 months old, the cubs would still have another two months before being fully weaned from their mother, according to a Chattanooga Zoo news release.

Both cubs lost weight within the first 48 hours of their mother's death. By Thursday, they had regained the weight that they lost, but they had gained no additional weight, animals keepers said. They currently weight about 1.1 pounds and 1.5 pounds.

Long suspects the cubs are too young to understand and grieve the death of their mother. She said it's been helpful that Maina had started leaving the cubs alone for periods of time and that she had started sleeping apart from them, leaving them to sleep together.

But Maina still fed them, so it's a struggle getting them to eat without their mother.

At first, neither animal wanted to be held. They scratched and tried to bite. Zoo officials adapted by sliding each cub into a cat glove. It looks like a blue zipper bag and it swaddles the cub allowing him to be held while holding his sharp claws close to his body and away from the person trying to feed him.

"It's like trying to put a cat in a bag," said Long as the panda continued trying to free his claws.

People see their cute faces and think they're like little teddy bears, but not so, Eckermann said. They are wild animals.

On Thursday, the first panda cub sat in Eckermann's lap with his head cocked to the side, looking around the room as he ate. His lunch was a mixture of puppy chow, crushed leaf-like substance, protein and mashed biscuit.

"It's a challenge every day," Long said as zoo vet tech Lacey Hickle kneeled down to spoon feed the cub while Eckermann held it.

The process seemed a little easier Thursday.

"I think they're getting conditioned to it," Long said.

Zoo keepers initially kept the two pandas with their mother. Their father, Wyatt, was shown at a separate time, with an older female panda named Ruth.

But with their mother deceased, zoo keepers say they will try to put them with their father as soon as they get them to eat on their own. And zoo officials may eventually start showing all the red pandas together. Keepers hope that their father can show the cubs how to climb and become pandas.

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.

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