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03/20/2014 07:10 pm ET Updated Mar 21, 2014

We Kind Of Don't Want To Tell You Why This Baby Sloth Bear Is Being Hand-Raised (UPDATED)

Tallie Wiles, Smithsonian's National Zoo

Zookeepers are hand-rearing this amazingly cute sloth bear cub. They're doing it because the cub's mom Khali ate the baby girl's two siblings.

The three cubs were born at the National Zoo on Dec. 29, 2013. The first cub was "ingested," as the zoo put it in a news release, about 20 minutes after being born -- which was not, evidently, especially alarming since "it is not uncommon" for sloth bears and other carnivores "to ingest stillborn cubs, or even live cubs if they or the mother are compromised in some way."

Seven days later, Khali then ate the second cub. "At that point," said the zoo in its news release, "keepers decided the only way the remaining cub would likely survive was to retrieve her from Khali’s den."

sloth bear
The cub at one week old. Photo credit: Mindy Babitz, Smithsonian's National Zoo

A veterinary examination found the remaining cub to be weak and dangerously cold, perhaps due to not having been cuddled by her mother. She was treated and stabilized, then on Jan. 9, when it was time to leave the veterinary hospital, the zoo felt it would be best to find her a different environment.

Zookeepers have been staying with the ursine youngster around the clock, bottle-feeding her and wearing her in a sling to simulate the contact she would have had with her mother (sloth bear mothers carry their cubs on their backs).

Now that she is a little older, zoo staff also spend time playing with the cub, who is living in the sloth bear habitat, in a separate pen from the other bears.

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The cub on March 20, 2014. Photo credit: Connor Mallon, Smithsonian's National Zoo

Zoo spokesperson Annalisa Meyer tells HuffPost that the cub will be named in the "near future," and that she may even be reintroduced to her mother, in time.

We "will be introducing her to another sloth bear for companionship," says Meyer. Khali is a candidate, as is the cub's father, François; the zoo also has two other sloth bears, Hana and her son Hank, who was born in December, 2012 (and was also fathered by François).

Sloth bears -- which are smart, solitary, nocturnal and largely eat insects and fruit -- are found in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan. Their populations are said to be in steep decline, largely due to habitat loss.

Meyer said this year's episode of filial cannibalism -- that's what it's called when an animal eats its young; it's an almost horrifyingly common occurrence -- won't preclude the zoo from attempting to breed Khali again.

"Khali has been a successful mother in the past. We have every reason to believe she will be a successful mother again in the future," Meyer says. "The decision to breed her again would be based on her genetics. She is a valuable member of the sloth bear species survival plan."

Mindy Babitz, the National Zoo's sloth bear specialist, said to the Washington Post that this cub, in the meantime, is being monitored day and night.

“If she wakes up and starts crying, we can run right in and take care of her,” Babitz told the paper. “She’s still getting a bottle in the middle of the night. The other thing is: She’s a baby. She has bad dreams. She gets scared. She starts crying, and she needs someone to comfort her.”

sloth bear
The sloth bear cub on March 20, 2014. Photo credit: Connor Mallon, Smithsonian's National Zoo

This post has been updated with Annalisa Meyer's comments about the zoo's future breeding plans for Khali.

We are always looking for stories about animals -- get in touch at arin.greenwood@huffingtonpost.com

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