Well, it sure didn’t take long to reach my favourite of all the babies in this calendar: Nandu, the gorgeous “little” greater one-horned rhino who was born on February 17, 2016. If you’re new to following me, I wrote a piece on another blog site last year shortly after he was born which told the story of just how much his mom, Ashakiran, means to me – and why. Asha had been pregnant once before but tragically lost the baby at the very last minute. Since then she and Vishnu had bred many times and she had even begun pregnancy at least once, but had been unable to carry a baby to term. I knew this was an unhappy situation for her keepers, so I stopped asking how the attempts were going in late 2014.
On a bright and beautiful spring day in 2015 – I think it was early April – I dropped by the Indian rhino exhibit to hang out a bit with my Spirit Animal, out in her paddock for one of the very first times that year. I was gently talking to her and watching her enjoy the fresh air when I felt a hand on my shoulder and a voice say, “Does she look any bigger to you?” I spun around to see the beaming face of John Armstrong, one of the longest-serving keepers at the Zoo and a passionate fan of the rhinos. “You’re kidding!” I exclaimed. “Are you kidding??” I could barely keep my feet on the ground at the news. “How far along? How is she doing? When is she due?…” the questions came tumbling out. I discovered that the Cincinnati Zoo had been giving our Zoo advice on how to help Asha maintain her pregnancy and it had been working like a charm: she was already five or six months along! I promised I wouldn’t tell anyone – the Zoo is very close-lipped about this kind of news until a baby is actually born (the pandas being a notable exception) – and floated away.
Luckily I didn’t have to keep my secret for very long – at least not from the other Volunteers. At our monthly meeting later in April, the Curator of Reproductive Programs – Gaby Mastromonaco – gave a presentation on her work, with a special interest in the giant pandas. During the course of the evening, she showed us a graph of “an Indian rhino” reflecting how its progesterone levels would look at certain points in a pregnancy. I pretty quickly figured out that the chart she was using belonged to our very own Ashakiran, so when she finally told all of us that bit of information I was already grinning from ear to ear and probably bouncing up and down in my seat. I had to explain this to her after the lecture because she couldn’t help but notice my excitement. So it was now more an “open secret,” but we still couldn’t tell anyone outside of the Zoo. So I waited…and waited….and….
In the late summer came news that Er Shun, the giant panda, was pregnant. That really started the whole “Boom” rolling. Before she gave birth, however, four little white lions cubs were born and that created even more excitement. “Well, that’s pretty fantastic,” I thought, “but there’s a rhino calf coming!” Then the panda cubs appeared. “Ok, but…” I thought again. One month later, we learned of the birth of a polar bear cub. “These are all amazing, but you really have no idea what’s coming,” I chuckled to myself. Eventually I learned that Ashakiran’s expected due date was sometime in February of 2016 – after a gestation period of between 15 and 16 months in total! So from the very first day of February until the day Nandu was born I dropped by the Zoo on 16 of the 17 days even if for no other reason than to spend a little time with Asha and see how she was doing. Some days she seemed fine; others she looked extremely uncomfortable. On the latter occasions, I would sometimes even sing to her a little bit just to keep her calm. (I think that Nandu heard my voice quite a bit in utero because he seemed to respond to it the very first time I saw him after he was born!) Then, on the afternoon of the 17th of February, I entered the Indian Rhino Pavilion only to find Vishnu out on display and not Asha. I was about to go find someone to see if she’d already had the baby when I suddenly heard her in the back, banging the metal door and lowing quite loudly. Vishnu, for his part, was so unperturbed by the disturbance that he slept through the bulk of it. I went home realizing she was in labour; I also realized that the 17th was the exact date John Armstrong had told me was his prediction. (I later learned he might have received some “steering” to that conclusion from another keeper; at that point, though, all I knew was there was likely going to be some news very, very soon. And the next morning, I received a message on my phone that Asha had had a little boy the night before. I immediately texted Sarah with the news: “I’m an uncle!!!”
Nandu was born weighing about 140 pounds, which always makes the moms gasp when I relay that information on a tour. I then let them know that the ratio is about the same as a human baby to its own mom (Ashakiran weighed about 3800 pounds before she became pregnant) and that seems to relax them for a moment. But then I like to wind them up again with the reminder of how long the gestation period is for these huge, sweet, wonderful creatures. Then I usually deliver the coup de grâce with the following tidbit: Nandu gained approximately five pounds a day, every day, for several months… before he had a single bite of solid food! When the Zoo finally obtained a new mega-scale last fall – to the supreme delight of many keepers – they were able to stop guessing Nandu’s weight and he is now well over 1300 pounds (and may be over 1400 as of this post). Still…that’s only a third of his mom’s weight, so his attempts to push her around in the exhibit are not particularly successful at this point.
It’s been so much fun watching Nandu frolic and romp about the grassy exhibit this past summer. I know he won’t be with us forever, but I’m going to wring every last ounce of cuteness out of him before he goes. Next month: a baby who was born just a stone’s throw away from the Indian Rhino Pavilion in a photograph I was very lucky to get. For now, I’ll leave you with one last glimpse of the proud mama and her adorable calf. See you in March!