On the heels of the holiday weekend, attendance at the Buffalo Zoo was on the lighter side Monday, but visitors who braved the threat of rain in the morning were rewarded with a treat: the public debut of the zoo’s baby Indian rhinoceros, Monica.
Though the weather may have discouraged the humans, the overnight showers helped create perfect conditions for the rhinos, as Monica’s mother, Tashi, introduced her 4-week-old, pinkish toddler to their outdoor enclosure.
“They found the mud right away – we had a lot because of the rain – and they rolled in it, as you can see,” said Joe Hauser, lead rhino keeper at the zoo, as he pointed out the clumps of dirt on the animals’ backs. “That’s definitely their favorite activity, rolling in the mud.”
Monica handled the outdoors well, sticking close to her mother for most of the two hours that they were outside. She acclimated easily to the terrain, although the keepers made some accommodations for the little one, like lowering the water level in Tashi’s pool.
“The adults can swim. They aren’t fantastic swimmers, but they are buoyant,” Hauser said. “The babies can’t swim, though.”
They expect Monica to get friskier as the summer goes on. “She will start to venture around on her own as she gets used to things,” Hauser said.
She won’t be venturing too far for too long, though. The baby is still nursing, and will continue to need her mother’s milk for about a year, although she’ll start eating other foods at about 3 months.
And she is thriving. Weighing in at 144 pounds when she was born June 5, Monica is now a sturdy 190 pounds and appears as a perfect miniature of her 4,200-pound mother (Tashi is still losing her “baby weight”), except without the signature horn. That comes later.
Monica is Tashi’s third calf, and the first born through artificial insemination. In fact, Monica is the only surviving Indian rhino in the world produced through in vitro fertilization, a process that could help the endangered species survive since, as Hauser pointed out, it is much easier to ship frozen sperm around the country than to ship a rhinoceros.
The Indian rhinos are among the rarest animals at the Buffalo Zoo, which also has a young male named George. He is the rhino who is sometimes visible from Parkside Avenue, and in a few years he could become a mate for Monica and perhaps even Tashi, who is now 17. George is not related to either female; Monica was created using frozen sperm preserved from a rhino at the Cincinnati Zoo before his death 10 years ago.
The slow maturing of the rhinos is one of the reasons they are endangered. Males aren’t sexually mature until they are about 10 years old, and the gestation period for a rhino is long – 466 days, in Monica’s case.
The fact that they grow up slowly is a good thing for zoo visitors, however.
“She’ll look like a baby for a long time,” Hauser said of Monica. “A year from now, she will still be a baby rhino.”
She will be outside with her mother daily, rain or shine, from 10 a.m. to noon for the near future, with time extended as she grows stronger.