Be sure to read Helping Rhino Mili: Part 2.
The time has flown by, and by mid-January, Mili is already one month old. She is about 230 pounds at this point, steadily gaining on average 3 pounds every day, just like a greater one-horned rhino calf should. We continued our dance of feeding her bottles in the morning and giving her back to Mom for more nursing. We watched her become bigger and stronger, and even felt the difference as she tried to play with us, not realizing that we weigh much less than she does at this point. She became interested in investigating not only the things that caught her attention, but everything she could reach with her tiny, prehensile lip! She cruised around the calf area searching for things to manipulate. She reached for my lunch bag one day, and that’s when it really sunk in that she is growing at an incredible rate.
I began feeding her tiny pieces of banana as a treat, to slowly acclimate her to more solid food. She gobbled it right up and followed me around with an open mouth, begging for more. I caved and gave her a few more pieces for free, but after that, banana would be reserved for conditioning sessions only. Our goal is to maintain this great relationship with her, because soon enough she will outweigh us by a few hundred pounds, and we have to be careful to keep safe. Just like with many Zoo animals, we use positive reinforcement operant conditioning to help maintain this relationship. It is a simple process where we pair a desired behavior with a positive experience, such as being scratched behind the ear or being offered a favorite treat. In this case, an important behavior is for Mili to continue to allow us to touch her ears and legs. In the future, if we ever need to get a blood sample from her, these are two of the ideal spots on rhinos to draw blood from.
Recently, in the warm weather, I’ve been able to sit on the roof of the boma and watch these two romp around the yard, with the occasional visit of a Caravan Safari truck that has been able to get close enough to give its riders a quick glimpse of Sundari and Mili. I overhear the caravan guide remind our guests that Mom and calf are still getting used to the yard and their surroundings. Then, a unanimous “awwwww” erupts from the guests. And I have to agree: she is pretty adorable!
Mili and Sundari will remain in the boma for another month or so and then get introduced to the rest of the herd. I’ll keep you posted!
Jonnie Capiro is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.