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This spring, Lansing’s Potter Park Zoo will trot out the biggest tiny attraction in its history — Jaali, the Eastern black rhino, born Dec. 24 to a chorus of “awwws” heard around the globe.
It’s an international triumph for a small-town zoo and a perfectly timed cause for celebration. The one-in-a-million Christmas gift came just in time for its 100th anniversary year.
A peppy baby rhino, barreling at you like a tiny tank with floppy ears, is more than a cuteness overdose. Seven-week-old Jaali is a precious bundle of rhino genes, a fragile lifeline from the near-total massacre of his species in the 20th and 21st centuries to a better future.
Jaali’s rubbery mug is more than an irresistible draw. It’s the face of the 21st century zoo, as it evolves from the exploitative, circus-like big tops of the past to indispensible arks of conservation, research and education.
The eastern black rhino is critically endangered, with fewer than 5,500 animals left in the wild and 54 in zoos. Relentless poaching and human encroachment drove their numbers down by 98 percent from 1960 to 1995, to less than 2,500.
With the help of MSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, data collected in Lansing from Jaali and her mother, Doppsee, during courtship, mating and pregnancy will help zookeepers and scientists around the world plot a course for the black rhino’s long-term survival.
There was some messy, outsized biology to be managed along the way. From refereeing rough rhino sex to taking rectal ultrasounds to poking for blood samples from an animal that can trample and impale you, it has been an adventure the zoo staff will never forget.
Gift to the world
On the night of Dec. 23, 2019, head zookeeper Pat Fountain slept on his living room couch, so he wouldn’t wake up his wife if he got a call from the rhino barn at the Potter Park Zoo. Security staffers were looking in on Doppsee, then near the end of her 16-month pregnancy, every hour on the hour.
The call came at 3:30 a.m Dec. 24, in the wee hours of Christmas Eve.
“Something is coming out of her,” a staffer said to Fountain. He rushed to the barn and called a dozen key zoo staff members, including the zoo veterinarian, Ronan Eustace.
They checked to see if Doppsee was all right, tiptoed away and retreated to a heated tent just outside the barn to watch the birth on closed circuit TV.
“That way, we could celebrate the first moments of this baby’s life and still give the mom as much space as possible,” Fountain said.
It took years of study, patience and hard work to get to this point, but it was too soon to celebrate. Eustace and the zoo staff went over their contingency plans in case Doppsee had a dystocia, or a difficult birth.
“Nobody’s done a Caesarian successfully on a rhino,” Eustace said. Anesthetics were on hand in case they had to pull the baby out by force. They talked about doing a rapid assisted delivery, a technique used for horses.
“But their skin is so thick and their guts weigh so much, that if we had to make an incision there was a real risk it wouldn’t heal,” Eustace said.
Supplies were ready to hand-rear the baby in case Doppsee, a first-time mom, turned out to be an indifferent or hostile parent.
Rhino labor usually lasts one to three hours. After only half an hour of labor, Doppsee gave birth at 5:45 a.m. Dec. 24. The baby’s birth weight was estimated at a normal 75 pounds. In about 90 minutes, the baby was taking his first steps and began nursing soon after. To Eustace’s relief, none of the contingency plans had to be carried out.
At about 8 a.m., the same time the keepers normally show up in the barn, the lights were slowly turned on and the zoo’s daily routine resumed.
Within a half hour, Doppsee was gobbling up sweet potatoes and welcoming the staff into the barn, as usual, with the baby wobbling unsteadily around her legs.
There was no going back to bed for Fountain and Eustace, as they fielded calls from The New York Times, NPR and ABC-TV.
“It’s one of the biggest things I could imagine being a part of,” Fountain said. “But for the zoo — how can I put this? We’re not the biggest zoo in the world. But the fact that we can do all of this work with rhinos and show the rest of the world — even the biggest zoos out there can see what we do. To be able to share this with everyone is so huge.”
Cup on a stick
From the first day Doppsee arrived at Potter Park Zoo in 2011, zookeepers noticed something unusual about her. She seemed to enjoy human company.
“That’s unusual,” Fountain said. “The black rhino is a ‘charge first and ask questions later’ kind of rhino.
But with her, we clicked as soon as she got here.”
Doppsee’s mild disposition gave Potter Park zookeepers and national researchers a unique chance to track the cycle of rhino mating, pregnancy and birth.
The more time the keepers spent with Doppsee, the more she let them train her.
Often, when Fountain brought Doppsee her breakfast in the morning, she didn’t eat it right away.
“She’d just stand there and lean into the bars and wait for you to put your arm over her head and give her a little scratch on the ear,” Fountain said. “Then she’d go and eat her food, like she needed you to acknowledge her and say ‘good morning’ before she even wanted to eat.”
A rhino is still a rhino. Keepers always have an exit strategy if they get in the yard with Doppsee. Inside the barn, keepers stay on their side of the bars.
“If she gets nervous, she can spin on a dime,” Fountain said. “She can run 35 miles an hour if she gets upset. They just tend to move slow, so it’s hard to imagine it until it happens. We still do everything as carefully and as safely as possible.”
Monica Stoops, a specialist in rhino reproduction at Cincinnati’s Lindner Center for Conservation and Wildlife, said she has never seen anything like the rapport between Potter Park zookeepers and Doppsee.
“She’s amazing to watch,” Stoops said. “They cue her. They are the only facility I’ve every worked with that they can get urine samples on command.”
Stoops has worked with rhinos for 15 years. Her work includes artificial insemination techniques and sperm freezing for rhinos that can’t breed naturally. Her research team has helped eight rhinos get pregnant, including an expecting mother in Denver who is due to give birth in March.
Stoops can track a female’s estrus cycles by testing urine samples, a less invasive procedure than a blood test.
Keepers noticed that Doppsee frequently urinated on one wall of the barn. They began to wait there for her and feed her treats whenever she urinated, to reinforce the behavior. Before long, it became routine. The keepers put a cup on a very long stick to catch some of the urine almost daily.
In another experiment, Stoops deposited some male rhino dung in the yard to see if it would get a rise out of her.
As soon as Doppsee smelled the stuff, she stretched her head high, bared her upper teeth and sniffed the irresistible aroma in a behavior called the “flehmen response.”
“In the wild, dung piles are like Twitter,” Stoops said. “It’s how rhinos learn who is doing what. She was probably thinking, ‘Oh, it’s an 8-year-old male.’”
Playing hard to get
Confident that Doppsee was ready to begin dating, zoo staff started looking for a suitable male. (Jello, the last male rhino to be housed at Potter Park, was euthanized in 2015 at about 12 years old after battling a rare seizure illness.)
Rhino matchmaking is all about genetics and kinship. The goal is to keep the gene pool viable despite the very small population. Lisa Smith, coordinator of the Species Survival Plan for the black rhino, analyzed kinship patterns in available male rhinos and recommended Phineus, a 12-year-old male the same age as Doppsee, then living at the Caldwell Zoo in Tyler, Texas.
Stoops’ lab collected semen from Phineus to verify that he was mature.
Rhino courtship can get rough. Eustace, Fountain and the staff worried about subjecting the Potter Park Zoo’s most charismatic denizen to the untender mercies of a 2,500-pound male. (Doppsee weighs about 2,800 pounds.)
There was also the chance that Doppsee’s 18-inch-long horn could do some damage to Phineus, especially if she positioned her head under his belly.
The Potter Park staff enlisted the experienced eye of Randal Pairan, head keeper at the Cincinnati Zoo’s rhino reserve, to observe the breeding pair. Pairan has been involved in five black rhino births spanning two generations of black rhinos.
Rhino management is not the most lucrative gig. After 29 years of working with rhinos, Pairan is still hanging on to his second job, installing alarm systems.
“I do this job for the love of the animals,” he said. “There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing a little rhino calf and knowing you’ve been a part of that.”
Pairan said that when it comes to rhino sex, zookeepers have to be extremely cautions, but they can also be too cautious.
“You kind of just put them together until they figure it out,” Pairan said. If they start going at it, it can look pretty bad, but this is what they’re built for. This is what they do in the wild.”
He told the Potter Park staff he has seen some frightening wounds inflicted in the name of love, but it’s all in the game.
“We bring them in, clean them up, put a little salve on them and the next day they’re back at it,” Pairan said nonchalantly. “I wish I could heal up that fast.”
Pairan checked out Potter Park’s rhino barn and yard, watching for slopes, ponds or other barriers that may cause problems if a flirtatious chase broke out. “They had some rocks in front of the yard that we didn’t want them running on,” he said.
When the time came for the Doppsee and Phineus’s first date, in October 2017, keepers had fire extinguishers and air horns on hand in case a sudden distraction was needed. Others were stationed at the barn doors in case they needed to be opened fast.
“It seemed like everybody on their staff was there the first couple times,” Pairan said.
Keepers put some food out for Doppsee to distract her while Phineus slowly sauntered onto the scene.
Phineus is a tough guy when keepers or visitors are around, Fountain said, but he behaved differently with Doppsee.
“The minute he saw her, he was a bit more of a gentleman. He was a little bit more timid,” Fountain said. “They did do quite a bit of sparring, but for the most part, he wasn’t interested in pursuing her any more than she would allow.”
Doppsee and Phineus growled, snorted and sparred. The yard resounded with the smack of horn against horn. There were several rounds of confrontation, chasing and wary standoffs.
Over time, Doppsee gradually dropped her hard-to-get attitude.
“She would kind of half-heartedly spar with him,” Fountain said. “If he hit her, she’d run around for a minute and then she’d present herself to him and sometimes almost back up into him, almost like, ‘Hey, this is what we’re supposed to be doing.’”
She never flinched
Two years ago, Doppsee and Phineus were both first time breeders, and so was the Potter Park Zoo, but by now all parties seem to have it down pretty well. The pair first mated in October 2017 and most recently on August 25, 2019.
It takes three months after rhino sex to learn whether the female is pregnant. Stoops’ lab tracked Doppsee’s estrus cycles via urine test, but Fountain didn’t need lab results.
“The staff at Potter Park Zoo is just outstanding at knowing their animals and looking for behavioral cues,” Stoops said.
“She’d come over to you, you’d pet her once, and then she’d lie down, like ‘I’m done with life,’ and want you to love her,” Fountain said. “She’d want even more attention than normal. It was still subtle, but obvious to the keepers that she was in heat.”
Near the end of August 2019, Stoops confirmed via blood samples that Doppsee was pregnant.
Doppsee’s uncanny equanimity as Eustace ushered her into the world of ultrasound tests and blood draws during her pregnancy is already a legend in the close-knit rhino research and zookeeper community.
Bridget Walker, a third-year student in MSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, spent much of the summer of 2019 working with Eustace and the Potter Park Zoo. The zoo and MSU’s vet school, where Eustace serves as an adjunct faculty member, have been closely collaborating for over 40 years.
“We don’t have a huge budget, but because we’re so close to the school, we’re able to do a lot more than we would otherwise,” Eustace said. “It’s a great relationship.”
If Eustace needs some help reading the EKG of an anteater, he calls on the vet school. In exchange, the students get some unique and unforgettable experiences.
During Doppsee’s pregnancy, Eustace invited nearly 100 MSU veterinary students observe or participate in her care. One of them took six pokes to get a blood sample, but Doppsee never flinched.
After two months of watching Eustace do blood draws, Walker did one herself.
Rhinos have very sensitive skin, despite their rugged appearance, but she seemed to like the attention.
“It’s my favorite moment of my career so far,” Walker said. “She didn’t move. She’s better at it than I am.”
It gets better. In the early stages of pregnancy, before the baby is pushed downward to the pelvis, Eustace had to perform trans-rectal ultrasounds to get an image.
The rectum of a rhino is very long.
“I’m 6 feet tall and I’m going in as far as I can,” Eustace said, holding his arm out.
Throughout the tests, the door to the barn chute was open and Doppsee could leave whenever she wanted. She never did.
“I don’t like saying she likes rectal ultrasounds,” Fountain said. “That makes me feel dirty. But she enjoys training. She would literally position her butt and back up perfectly for us and just put it in the perfect spot and just eat some treats and hang out.”
Later, Eustace switched to trans-abdominal ultrasounds, which have their own hazards.
“Their epidermis and dermis is very thick. I have to push, really, really, really hard. It’s physically exhausting,” Eustace said. “There’s still a lot of trust because if I’ve got my arm in there and she wants to walk or lean into it, she’ll break my arm.”
Ultrasounds showed a healthy mother and baby, and, with time, a heartbeat began to show up.
When she heard the news of Jaali’s birth, Stoops was busy at her duties in Omaha, but she was proud as anyone to have taken part in Lansing's big adventure. “For a researcher, they are a gold star facility, because of their dedication to the species,” she said.
The long game
The Potter Park Zoo staff will put off any decisions on Jaali’s future for at least a couple of years. Chances are, Jaali will take his turn at being paired with a female at another zoo, as his father, Phineus was.
Stoops said it’s necessary to build up the captive population before risking repatriation.
For the black rhino, things look bleak outside the zoo yard.
About 98 percent of black rhinos in the world are in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Namibia. Political unrest and lack of resources in the area have long hindered efforts to combat widespread poaching. According to the journal Science, the value of rhino horn has surpassed that of gold. The demand is driven by widespread beliefs, especially in Asia, that rhino horns work any number of miracles, from curing cancer to enhancing sex drive.
Those are formidable political and cultural challenges that may take generations to solve. That leaves it to AZA accredited zoos like Potter Park to help get black rhinos through their deadly current bottleneck until conditions improve.
Walker, in tune with modern zoo practice, is training as a scientist as much as an animal doctor. Her main project last summer involved measuring thyroid levels in Potter Park’s red pandas.
“There’s been a huge shift in zoos from being primarily an entertainment facility to serving much more a purpose as far as conservation and research,” Walker said. “One of the biggest hopes is that a lot of the animals we work with in captivity can one day be reintroduced into an environment where they can live out their lives naturally.”
There are already species, like Panamanian golden frogs, that are completely extinct in the wild and only maintained in zoos.
Potter Park Zoo is home to several ongoing conservation projects, including the critically endangered Puerto Rican crested toad, the only toad native to the island and the first amphibian to get a Species Survival Plan. It sounds like a cakewalk compared to rhino mating, but getting these little guys to breed involves providing them with fungal baths, hormone injections, round-the-clock recordings of toad calls and other amenities most Airbnbs don’t have. The zoo has sent thousands of tadpoles to Puerto Rico, including a batch of 2,000 last August, in hopes of bringing them back from the brink.
What is the long game for the black rhino? In quieter moments, Randal Pairan and Monica Stoops have talked about a time, perhaps 100 or 200 years from now, when poaching and political turmoil in Africa is a memory and the descendants of Jaali and Doppsee and Phineus roam where they will, perhaps in vast sanctuaries, perhaps in the wild.
“Jaali is one step in trying to make sure that population will still be around in 100 years,” Stoops said.
For now, the gene pool of some 54 rhinos in the United States is like a seed bank in a bunker, awaiting one of two outcomes — a world of more evolved humans or a world cleansed of them, and therefore freed from humanity’s relentless encroachment and willful slaughter.
Last week, Walker met Jaali for the first time. It struck her that rhinos are always much bigger than you expect, but rhino babies are much smaller.
“He was taking a nap and he stood up,” she recalled. “He’s definitely inherited some of his mom’s personality. He pricks up his ears and comes right up to you for a few scratches. It’s crazy to look at such a tiny animal and know that he has such a big impact.”