December 19, 2014

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Cincinnati zoo volunteers on rhino watch

CINCINNATI — It’s reality TV. It’s rhinoceros TV. Heck, it’s both.

And it was being watched closely by two Cincinnati senior citizens, Betty Wuest and Janet Morgan, on Tuesday evening. Their eyes were trained on a wide-screen monitor in the Cincinnati Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife, or CREW.

In the Rhino Reserve in a different part of the park, video cameras provided them with a live shot of Nikki, the zoo’s pregnant Indian rhino, who spent a fair amount of time napping and munching hay. She’s at day 471 of a 480-day gestation, and could give birth any time.

“It just kind of gets in your blood to do this,” Wuest said.

She and Morgan are among nearly five dozen Zoo Volunteer Observers who since Friday have been taking turns keeping watch on Nikki in four-hour shifts from 3 p.m. until 7 a.m., when most zoo keepers are off duty.

“Our prime thing is to watch what she’s doing, and if there’s a problem, to call somebody right away,” said Wuest, a retired Procter & Gamble distribution supervisor.

“We’re all doing it because we think we might see the birth. This birth is going to be historic.”

Indeed, if all goes well, 18-year-old Nikki will deliver the world’s first Indian rhino calf conceived by artificial insemination; it will also be the first such rhino produced with frozen-thawed sperm.

Monica Stoops, the 38-year-old CREW scientist whose research made Nikki’s pregnancy possible, said of the volunteer observers: “They’re our eyes and ears when we’re not here.”

They will continue to keep watch on Nikki and her baby for about a week after the birth, “to look at mother-calf interaction, to make sure she’s nursing well and all that,” Stoops said.

For now, though, they’re looking for signs that Nikki might be going into labor.

They record her every move on a chart with 20 rhino behaviors, including drinking, eating, standing idle, pacing, kicking, rubbing and head tossing.

“If she’s getting up, eating and doing her normal business of peeing and defecating, that can be a lot of activity,” Stoops said. “Then of course there are times of time where there’s a lot of sleeping.”

Wuest and Morgan say they don’t get bored. Both women are longtime zoo volunteers who have participated in plenty of other animal watches, including bonobos, komodo dragons, cheetahs, polar bears, Sumatran rhinos and gorillas. But neither woman has ever been present for a birth.

“The most fun is watching the gorillas, because you actually see the mother holding the baby,” said Morgan, who worked in human resources with Cincinnati Public Schools before retiring.

The volunteers have been briefed on Nikki’s idiosyncrasies, so as not to sound a false alarm.

“One of the things we’ve had to talk about is that Nikki is kind of dramatic when it comes to defecating,” Stoops said. “That’s just a normal thing for her, whether she’s pregnant or not.”

Uh, dramatic?

“She does a lot of walking around, and lining up to position, and walking around, and lining up, shaking her head, and shaking her rear end, and walking away. That can go on for an hour. And then she’ll finally do her business.”

Volunteer observers were shown a video of this pre-pooping procedure. Otherwise, they could be led to think, “this might be something coming. And it is something coming,” Stoops said, chuckling.

Just not a baby.

The telltale sign that contractions have begun: Nikki will lie down and stretch out her hind legs. It didn’t happen on the 3-7 p.m. shift of Wuest and Morgan, but they’ll be back again in a week, hoping for the chance to witness history being made.