Theodore. Baby Theo. Theodorable. Whatever you choose to call him, a ridiculously cute bundle of energy was born at the Zoo late in the evening of Christmas Eve, 2017. There hadn`t been a white rhinoceros baby born in Toronto in about 30 years or so, so this was a big, big deal. In fact, Nandu – whom I wrote about in 2017 – was the only other rhino baby of any species born at the Toronto Zoo this millennium. Rhinos have been among my very favourite animals ever since my life-changing encounter with Ashakiran while I was still a trainee; consequently, I had been eagerly awaiting this “little” guy’s arrival – and that of Nandu’s younger brother, born just days after Theo – for many months.
Zohari (Zohi) and Sabi (who is the elder by eight months) are half-sisters. When they first arrived at the Toronto Zoo – my recollection is sometime in 2014, but I might be off by a year – they were quite shy and skittish. When they started to discover their new home, we were asked as Volunteers to observe them to see how they were making out. I recall quite vividly how they would stand for long periods of time, bum-to-bum, as if they had “circled” precisely two covered wagons to keep an eye out for danger. A young male, Tom, was already living here and it was hoped that he would breed with one or both of the girls in the near future. When they were all finally introduced to each other, however, whenever one of the girls was cycling the other had an annoying tendency to “run interference” and ward off any of Tom’s attempted approaches. Eventually, the Keepers tried to work out which sister was cycling and just put Tom out on exhibit with that one, leading to much kerfuffle and huffing from the one left behind in the holding. When neither was cycling, they all would go out together and act like just the best of friends.
All of this went on for quite some time until, finally, the decision was made to give Tony – an older male – a chance to work some magic, as it was quite clear Tom just wasn’t getting the job done. Or was he? On Tony’s first day with the girls – which happened to be a day I was working as a “Keeper for a Day” with the lions and hyenas – it was “all hands on deck” for the Keepers in the afternoon, to watch for any potential trouble. I was watching as Tony came out into the paddock and immediately began to act quite aggressively toward Zohi, but not in any sort of breeding manner. He repeatedly forced her to back up into the moat while he turned his more “lusty” attention toward Sabi. The obvious issues he had with Zohi were a bit puzzling to the Keepers; as a result, this grouping of rhinos only happened for a couple of days before they began to fear for Zohi’s safety and called it off. In retrospect, considering the date was August 23rd, white rhinos gestate for approximately 16 months, and Theo was born the following December 24th, it seems very likely that one of Tom’s attempts had actually been successful and Zohi was already pregnant when Tony was introduced to the girls.
And that breeding process itself is incredible to witness. It’s arduous, it’s frustrating, it’s exhausting, and it has the potential for disaster as there are around five tons of mass coming together while it’s going on. The female coaxes the male by spraying urine all over the place for him to smell (and, if that doesn’t work, a good horn to the midsection will get his quick attention). When he approaches her for potential breeding, she widens her stance to provide the most stable base possible, and curls her tail up to her back. The male tests her stability by resting his muzzle on her lower back and pressing down. If he feels comfortable enough to make the attempt, he launches his front half into the air and tries to get a foothold on her ribcage. If this is successful, he then walks his lower half up step by step until he is within range to attempt to breed.
And this isn’t even the most exhausting part of the ritual.
Once the male has “assumed the position,” he then begins the process of erecting his massive penis, which is – quite frankly – one of the most spectacular feats I have ever witnessed in nature. (I’ve not added any photos of this here just to protect any “delicate constitutions, but I have some pretty incredible shots from the day I took these other two.) When this has been accomplished, he then has to pump a huge amount of blood to the organ and, while it’s “primed,” manoeuvre it into the female’s vagina. Without looking at it. From several feet away. While exhausted from the climb and the erection. It’s amazing to me that these beasts ever reproduce, because I watched this process repeat itself numerous times between Tom and Sabi over the course of more than 90 minutes one steaming hot afternoon in August of 2017 and not end in successful penetration even one time. Thus, the two of them were back at it the very next day, and this time successful breeding did take place. It did not, however, result in a pregnancy for Sabi at that time. Maybe soon, though; we all have high hopes for them.
A quick word about that name, “white rhino.” There are five existing species of rhinoceros: greater one-horned (sometimes called “Indian”), Javan, Sumatran, African white, and African black. The white rhino is, of course, not “white” at all, as can easily be seen in this photo of Tom. The most popular theory of the etymology of this name is that it is derived from the Afrikaans word weit, which means “wide,” referring to this species’ broad muzzle. Of the five species of rhino, this is the only one that does not have a prehensile upper lip, and therefore they are “grazers” rather than “browsers.” Under this theory, the “black” rhino is simply called that because they are not the “white” rhinos, although they do appear to be at least slightly darker in general. There has long been debate about this origin; nevertheless, it definitely has merit and it’s the one I currently believe. Both the white and the black rhinos (along with the Sumatran) have two horns – albeit much smaller in the case of the Sumatran – and are therefore the most-often poached species, quite simply because they provide a two-for-one value vs the Indian or Javan species. Poaching is a huge issue for these magnificent creatures and we may well lose them off the face of the earth altogether in this century if we are unable to educate everyone about the ridiculous fallacy of their horns having any “magical powers.” Rhino horns are made out of keratin, a fibrous protein which can also be found in animals’ tails, fur, and your own fingernails and hair. You’d have as much luck in curing cancer by chewing your own fingernails as you would in consuming rhino horn, yet the myths persist in many cultures around the world. We are currently losing 4-5 individuals rhinos every single day around the world. It’s an absolutely devastating – and completely unnecessary – loss of life.
But they’re not alone in their fight to survive. There are wonderful breeding programs at great institutions like the Toronto Zoo; there are international organizations such as the International Rhino Foundation (where proceeds of the 2016 calendar were directed), Save the Rhino, and the World Wildlife Fund; there are anti-poaching organizations, and so many brave humans who are serving as Rangers and laying their own lives on the line to protect these sweet creatures from harm. The fight may very well never end, but the most important and effective weapon of all is not a gun, but education. If you ever hear anyone erroneously claiming that rhino horn (or tiger organs, or elephant tusks, or any of myriad other “traditional medicine” components that are devastating wild populations) have any medicinal properties whatsoever, please step in and disabuse them of this notion. As the saying goes: “The only animal on this planet that can benefit from a rhino horn is… a rhino.” And if you get a chance, please go back and check out this piece I wrote about Ashakiran, which will help you to understand just why this situation is so very important to me. Thank you all for any help you give!
I’ll end here, and – before I post a small mosaic of Theo shots – I will mention that the photo next month is my own personal favourite of the thirteen contained in this year’s calendar. It’s one that, when the month is over, I will very likely tear off of the coils and hang up elsewhere going forward. I hope you love it as much as I do. See you then and, as always, thanks for reading!