Helping Rhino Calf Mili, Part 1

Mili is fed by Melodi Tayles, a lead keeper at the Safari Park.

Mili is fed by Melodi Tayles, a lead keeper at the Safari Park.

I sat in the dark, nestled in a bed of hay entering notes into the computer with only a lantern by my side. It was a cold night, and surprisingly, the fluffy hay bed was keeping me warm. Above the hum of the generator, I heard some stirring. The Safari Park’s newest greater one-horned rhino calf, Shomili (Bengali meaning “beauty and elegance”; Mili for short) was awake and searching around to nurse from first-time mom, Sundari. I peered through the room with my flashlight and saw her poking her face around Mom’s belly. “Come on,” I thought, “you guys can figure this out.” I patiently waited for the calf to latch on and nurse. I noted the time in our records. We were on round-the-clock watch for this little rhino and her mom to make sure they were bonding and nursing.

Rhinos are born in the wild without supervision or intervention all the time, of course, but this little rhino needed a little extra keeper care. We pay careful attention to even the smallest details in our animals. A very important part of the dam/calf bonding process is making sure the little one is getting enough milk. In this case, we just weren’t sure. Sundari seemed to be going through the motions of feeding her calf, but she didn’t seem to have as much udder development as we would expect and as we’ve seen from other rhino moms. Additionally, Mili was a little on the small side at birth, only 127 pounds, when the species’ average birth weight is 150 pounds. After much deliberation, brainstorming, and working together with the vets, we decided to offer Mili supplemental bottles, just to be on the safe side.

We began feeding her rhino calf-sized milk bottles a few times a day. Fortunately, Mili seemed to enjoy our attention, and Sundari approved of these interactions. How could we be so sure? For starters, Mili responded well to us by entering the rhino calf area, a space corralled by hay bales that she could access by walking under a bar that created a little “dog-door” just big enough for her to fit through. Here, we could get our hands on her, encourage her to walk onto the scale, as getting daily weights would be crucial to her development plan, and introduce her to the bottle.

Mili was very calm and inquisitive, which made this relationship develop smoothly. And, in this calf-only area, Mili could choose to leave us at any time and go right back to her mom. However, after just a few weeks, she was so friendly that we had to remind her to go back to Mom when playtime with us was over for the day! Whenever Mili visited with us, we gave Sundari plenty of treats to reinforce that she was doing an excellent job at being such a laid-back mom. The success of this project and relationship with Mili was mostly due to Sundari’s compliance and willingness to share her calf with us for a little while every day. What a cool mom!

Jonnie Capiro is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Giraffe Calf Introduction. Follow Jonnie’s tweets from the field on the Safari Park’s Twitter feed.

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