rhino calf


Personable Petunia

greater 1-horned rhinos Petunia and TanayaPetunia, the newest greater one-horned rhino calf at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, was born to Tanaya on August 1, 2014. The keepers heaved a collective sigh of relief when she and Tanaya were released from the maternity corral into the 40-acre Asian Plains exhibit with the other greater one-horned rhinos. When Petunia was born, she was diminutive by rhino standards, weighing only 128 pounds (58 kilograms) instead of the usual 132 to 176 pounds (60 to 80 kilograms). Additionally, Tanaya was having trouble producing milk for Petunia, so the keepers treated her with a drug to increase milk production. As a result, the concerned keepers kept 24-hour surveillance on Tanaya and Petunia in the maternity corral for the first few weeks of Petunia’s life.

Petunia is now a spunky, vibrant part of our greater one-horned rhino crash. She and Tanaya were released into the Asian Plains exhibit with the rest of the rhinos when Petunia was four weeks old. Tanaya took Petunia on a tour of her new home and has been the model protective rhino mom, never straying from Petunia’s side. But Tanaya’s strides are so large that Petunia trots to keep up with her. To escape the heat, Petunia has been exploring the mud wallows throughout the exhibit. She is still so tiny that she sometimes sits on top of Tanaya’s feet to keep her head above water!

As Petunia gets more comfortable in her new habitat, she gets braver. I have even seen Petunia surreptitiously investigate Parvesh, the seven- month-old greater one-horned rhino calf (see post Rhino Calf Makes Own Rules). When Tanaya catches her straying toward the toddler, she quickly ushers Petunia away. Petunia is a bit too small to play with Parvesh right now, but as she continues to gain weight, she will be big enough to romp around the exhibit with her half brother. She may even catch up to him in size, as rhino calves gain about 100 pounds (45 kilograms) per month during their first year of life. Watch out, Parvesh! Petunia might be the new boss in the exhibit.

Petunia is the 67th greater one-horned rhino calf born at the Safari Park, making the Park the principal breeding center in the world for this species. The Safari Park officially celebrated World Rhino Day on September 22, but guests who love Petunia and the other rhinos as much as I do celebrate World Rhino Day every day!

Elise Newman is a Caravan Safari guide at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.


Rhino Calf Makes Own Rules

Parvesh trots proudly beside his mother, Alta.

Parvesh trots proudly beside his mother, Alta.

Leroy the giraffe calf isn’t the only baby commanding lots of guest attention at the Safari Park these days (see post From Milk to Solids for Young Giraffe). Parvesh, a greater one-horned rhino calf, was born to Alta on February 25, 2014. Like Leroy, he was born in a maternity corral. He gained the expected 100 pounds (45 kilograms) per month and was released into the Asian Plains habitat with Alta when he was a month old. Now he weighs about 600 pounds (270 kilograms)!

Parvesh still nurses and will continue to do so for another year and a half, but he also experiments with solid foods. As Alta browses through grass, hay, pellets, and fruit, Parvesh stands alongside to nibble her food. Caravan Safari participants sometimes feed the rhinos apples. An adult rhino eats about 100 pounds of food per day. Each caravan truck carries only ten apples, so this snack is like a box of raisins to an adult rhino. Tour participants can’t hand-feed Parvesh yet. He is too short to reach over the truck slats, which are 7 feet (2.1 meters) off the ground, and his digestive system isn’t developed enough to process the sugar in 10 apples. If we feed him too much sugar, it will ferment in his stomach and make him sick. So it will be a few more weeks before we can hand-feed baby Parvesh.

In the meantime, he makes his own rules. He stands underneath Alta with his mouth open and catches the apples she drops!

Elise Newman is a Caravan Safari guide at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.


Helping Rhino Mili: Part 3

Mili stretches her little legs.

Mili checks out the world outside of the protective boma.

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.


Helping Rhino Calf Mili, Part 2

Mili gets a mud bath from her keeper staff.

Mili gets a mud bath from her keeper staff.

Be sure to read Helping Rhino Calf Mili, Part 1.

Soon after the birth, the 24-hour watches stopped, but we still spent our entire workday observing and caring for this greater one-horned rhino duo. It was amazing to see just how quickly a rhino calf develops. After spending the entire first week with Mili after her birth, I was very much in tune with her behavior and could even see very subtle changes and developments.

Initially, her giant ears stayed down close to her head, and she moved quite slowly, still getting used to those brand-new legs. Her main goals in life, as were mother Sundari’s, were to eat and sleep. And with the occasional supplemental bottle, that’s about all she did. Mili would enter the calf area to be weighed every morning while Mom munched away on a snack. Mili still had somewhat uncoordinated movements, stepping the 4 inches up onto the scale, bumping into keepers on her way back down, and just kind of moving slowly everywhere she went.

One day, during the second week of observations, I noticed that Mili was starting to pay more attention to the things around her. Instead of her usual routine of following Mom around, she investigated items that caught her attention. She rubbed her face back and forth on top of some grain that Sundari had clumsily spilled on the ground, trying to figure out what these little, round pellets were. She became distracted by things in her room: an empty food tub, a branch of ficus that Sundari had not devoured yet, or a small scrap of hay. She was obviously more aware of her surroundings, thus more distracted when we tried to get her attention. We were no longer the most interesting thing in her world.

During week three, the 190-pound (86 kilograms) rhino ran around everywhere before skidding to a halt right in front of us, as if showing off her still-awkward legs. Her ears stuck straight up now and moved around searching for sounds, just like her mom’s ears. She was spending more time playing with Sundari, which was mostly Mili playing while Mom was trying to sleep. Also, her mode of moving around went from a slow walk to a run! Some mornings, she would have to get all this playing out of her system before she would drink her bottle. After about 10 minutes, she would surrender, open mouthed and out of breath from running, but ready to eat. Every week marked significant progress in her development.

Jonnie Capiro is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Follow Jonnie’s tweets from the field on the Safari Park’s Twitter feed.


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.


Where Are Those Rhinos?

Alta and Charlees sleeping away in their “rhino hideout.”

One morning, I turned off the truck engine to enjoy the tranquility of the field exhibit at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and realized it was much more peaceful than usual. Why wasn’t a boisterous group of greater one-horned rhinos raiding the contents of my feed truck? Why couldn’t I hear them noisily chomping on carrots and apples? Why was it so eerily quiet and still out here? Where were the rhinos?

Rhino dynamics had changed quite drastically upon releasing new mom Alta and her now 4-month-old calf, Charlees, to the exhibit and temporarily housing Bhopu, our sire, in the boma yard to give Alta and Charlees some time to navigate the huge exhibit on their own for a few months (see post Rhino Calf Makes Debut). After Mom and calf cruised the entire exhibit checking things out, Alta took her baby down into the ravine, a rocky area that the rhinos seem to know we keepers can’t access, even with our four-wheel-drive trucks. The other four females followed suit. It seemed like they were just taking a break at first, but then a few days went by and we were all stumped: why aren’t they acting like they usually do?

The greater one-horned rhinos are notorious for being giant chowhounds. They are pretty reliable for approaching our trucks looking for a snack and sometimes even treating them like their own personal buffet, grabbing bags of feed, hoisting their large heads up onto the bed to quickly survey the contents for a shiny, red apple. But lately, they wouldn’t even bother to grace us with their presence first thing in the morning when we dish out hundreds of pounds of grain throughout the exhibit.

We realized we better make an effort to get the rhinos used to coming up to our trucks again. Each day, we tried to lure the rhinos over to a flat spot with a giant, leafy piece of their favorite treat: ficus browse. They barely responded. However, thanks to the evidence of the enormous rhino middens (poop piles spread throughout the exhibit; see Collecting Rhino Treasures); we know for a fact that they surfaced every day, just not during our work schedule. Hmm.

This went on for a few weeks, and then we started seeing them up and around the exhibit first thing in the morning. Aha! I approached Alta and Charlees cautiously, because one thing you should know about greater one-horned rhinos is that they are kind of dramatic; one minute you can be feeding them apples from the truck, and then who-knows-what initiates a reaction, and they trot off as if you’ve offended them. I calculated my approach, tossing pieces of food out of the window as a peace offering as I rolled to stop. Alta and I sized each other up. I was thinking, “Is she going to run off?” while she probably wondered, “Is this little truck driver going to mess with my kid?” I decided she was going to stay, so I hopped out of the driver’s seat and quickly scaled the back of truck and armed myself with all kinds of goodies.

I sat there and patiently waited for her to realize that she could trust me. I guess hunger won her over, because she slowly started lumbering toward my truck with kid in tow. I had the chance to interact with Charlees while she was in the boma, and Alta did a great job of being protective but not aggressive. In the safety of the boma, Alta would munch away on her treats while keeping a careful eye on Charlees, who would try to eat my entire hand after I fed her a tiny piece of banana. She already had tiny little teeth! I would reassure Alta by giving her plenty of positive reinforcement and letting her calf approach me on her own, instead of reaching out to Charlees. Now, out in the field, it’s like hitting the restart button. We have to develop a relationship all over again because of this big change in her environment.

As she approached the truck, I dropped an entire tub of food on the ground and also handed her a few apples. She must have been hungry, because she didn’t pay any attention to her child as she busily investigated the front of the truck. So far, so good. While Alta ate, Charlees made her way around to me. I reached my hand down with a tiny piece of apple, and she gobbled it right up! I fed her piece after piece while checking on Alta to make sure she was cool with this. She didn’t seem to mind. Alta finished her tub of treats but didn’t walk off like the rhinos usually do when the food is gone. I gave her some grain and hay to see if that would satisfy her, and it did. Charlees was also interested in this new food item and started playing with it with her somewhat uncoordinated prehensile lip. I sat and watched them eat, enjoying the company of this pair. Charlees is an extraordinary addition to our group of rhinos, and I’m proud that her mom has done such a great job of caring for her.

After this visit to the truck, Alta became more interested in approaching us again and allowing her calf to visit us. Eventually, Asha and Kaya emerged from the rhino hideout and were spotted feeding from Caravan Safari trucks and even lounging in the wallow. Whew, looks like things are getting back to normal…until we let Bhopu out of the boma in about a month!

Jonnie Capiro is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Cinco de Rhino.

Follow Jonnie’s tweets from the Safari Park’s field exhibit on the Safari Park’s Twitter!


Rhino Calf Makes Debut

Charlees stretches her legs in the Safari Park's wide-open exhibit space.

Two months after the birth of Charlees, our greater one-horned rhino, we were almost ready to let her explore the exhibit with her first-time mother, Alta (see post Preparing for a Rhino Debut). In the past month, we had watched Charlees grow up a lot and even start to build relationships with the keepers. Alta became much more accepting of the keepers, allowing us to call the calf over to introduce her to being touched around the head and letting her investigate things. The new mother kept a careful watch over Charlees, but she seemed to be much more comfortable with sharing some baby time with us! Charlees became interested in solid food just a little while ago and seems to love bananas. She came barreling at the keepers for a tiny piece of banana! This was an excellent foundation for starting a training program with her, but more on that in a future blog post.

The Asian Savanna field exhibit at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, which is usually pretty quiet, had been dynamic and very busy lately. Alta and Charlees were progressing well, and they even spent some time visiting with the rest of the rhinos, Bhopu, Tanaya, Kaya, and Sundari, through a “howdy” window. They were ready to be reunited with Alta and the new little one. We gave them lots of treats in these areas to encourage this social behavior and provided some enrichment for the little family while they were temporarily in the boma, a fenced-off area within the Asian Savanna.

In preparation for their introduction to the exhibit, we planned to move the big guy, Bhopu, into the boma for awhile to give the girls a chance to get acquainted with things on their own. It’s a big exhibit to learn how to navigate, and it would be a lot less intimidating without the curious Bhopu lurking around!

On March 20, Bhopu was moved into the boma, and Alta and Charlees were released into the field. Alta was excited, yet nervous to be out there with her calf. She allowed Tanaya and Sundari to say hello to Charlees but remained very aware of their response to this new rhino. Alta is so protective, but after a few days getting reacquainted with the exhibit, we hope that she will relax a little and settle right back into the herd.

You can find Alta tucked away in the rocky part of Asian Savanna, caring for and protecting her young one. She has started approaching the feed truck again but doesn’t stay long because Charlees is almost always on the move. Her little legs run and run, and Mom stays close behind her. We’ll continue to let Alta and Charlees get acclimated to the exhibit for now and hope that she will start bringing her kid over to say hello very soon!

Jonnie Capiro is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.


Preparing for a Rhino Debut

Charlees explores the world under the watchful eye of her mother.

Since the birth of a greater one-horned rhino calf, Charlees, at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, so much has happened (see Preparing for a Rhino Birth)!  As Charlees (pronounced like Charlize, her name is the Bengali language for Charlie) and her mother, Alta, got to know each other, they started leaving the maternity room to venture into the boma yard (a fenced-off area within the Park’s huge Asian Savanna exhibit), during the day for some nice weather and visits from the rest of the rhinos. The new mother and daughter also became more accustomed to having the keepers around doing observations and monitoring their progress.

As a first-time mom, Alta was experiencing some adjustments to her routine. She used to rest during the day, but now, Charlees would wake Alta up every hour or so, nudge her until she was standing, and nurse for up to 10 minutes at a time. This activity went on intermittently throughout the day. Rhino calves can gain up to 100 pounds (45 kilograms) a month, so this rhino team had a lot of work to do!

When they were not resting or feeding, they were exploring the boma yard or sleeping in the sun. Alta was doing a great job as a new mom. She was careful to keep her focus on her new baby! Alta hesitantly approached us for treats, like she used to, but now she was constantly checking on her calf, who was usually right near her or very close behind.

This adjustment period in the boma continued for another month or so. They needed some time to bond, time to get used to navigating the boma yard, and time to grow up a little to get ready for the introduction to the exhibit. Currently, there are eight other species in the Asian Savanna exhibit and over 100 animals! There were so many things for this new calf to learn, we wanted to be confident that Alta and Charlees were up for it. In the meantime, we continued to monitor them and get them ready for that exciting day. Check back next week to learn how it went!

Jonnie Capiro is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.


Preparing for a Rhino Birth

Alta, on far left, was 11 months pregnant when Jonnie took this photo.

On January 20, 2012, a female greater one-horned rhino female was born at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Exciting news! But let me tell you how we prepared the first-time mother, Alta, for the birth and why this kind of surprise isn’t out of the ordinary. Last summer we learned from our research team that seven-year-old Alta was pregnant. We submit routine fecal samples (See post Collecting Rhino Treasures: Poop!) and monitor any kind of breeding activity to track a pregnancy. We were excited, because this would be Alta’s first calf and our second calf from the genetically desirable male, Bhopu. We looked at our detailed breeding records and started devising a birth management plan.

Gestation is typically 15 to 16 months for this species, but determining a due date involves some data and scientific background. We are not out in the field 24 hours a day, and those rhinos engage in all kinds of activity when we are not on duty. There are many variables that can confuse things, such as misleading estrous behaviors observed during pregnancy, and it can get quite complicated! We take all of these challenges into consideration when speculating about potential due dates and use these as milestones. Our overall plan is to make sure that any rhino moms-to-be are checked into their maternity suite, called a boma, in plenty of time to acclimate to the new surroundings. The maternity room is padded with bedding that ensures a safe delivery away from the immense and somewhat uneven terrain of the Safari Park’s field exhibit. Because this was to be Alta’s first calf, we moved her into the boma (a fenced-off area within the exhibit) months in advance for a few days at a time to get her used to being away from the group and to become adjusted to the boma and its maternity room.

At first, Alta was wary of being in the boma, but as time progressed, and she realized it was a nice place to relax for a couple of days, her typical behavior returned. Imagine trying to convince a rhino that this change is for her benefit. We can’t tell her not to worry, that we have a team of very experienced veterinarians in the event of a complication and that the keepers will carefully monitor her calf for any signs that we need to intervene. Instead, we convinced Alta as only keepers know how, with positive reinforcement! We made a positive association with the boma by providing big rhino enrichment toys, big and leafy ficus branches (a rhino favorite), and lots of attention! She came to accept the boma as a place to rest, and she seemed more comfortable after several of these “practice runs.”

When Alta began to have some teat development, she was moved her into the boma for further evaluation of her behavior, appetite, and physical development. That was a couple of weeks ago, and she really wasn’t showing much progress. She was calm, eating well, and didn’t seem very restless. We referred to our records again, and saw that the next possible due date wasn’t until March. That was so far from now! But that very same day, while we were observing her and discussing our plan, a flash of pink skin just beneath her belly caught our attention—she appeared to be having further teat development. It looked bigger than it did a few weeks ago. That was enough information for us to be confident that we needed to keep a close eye on her.

The next day, she demonstrated more signs of an impending birth, and we started a 24-hour watch. Just after midnight on January 20, under the careful watch of a keeper, the calf was born, and Alta’s instincts kicked in. She cleaned up the baby and allowed her to nurse. This is one of the most important behaviors we need to observe, just to be sure that this first-time mom has figured out her role. We continued the observations throughout the following day, noting her progress, behavior, and amount of time she spent nursing. Everyone felt comfortable that this birth was a success!

This birth is also a big step toward contributing new genetic material to the managed population of greater one-horned rhinos in the United States. This species is considered “vulnerable” in its natural habitat, with a small population of about 2,850 rhinos in India and Nepal. This was the 61st greater one-horned rhino born at the Safari Park—great news for this species! I’ll share more news about the calf next week.

Jonnie Capiro is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Ready for a Rhino Relationship.