A Keeper’s Experience
By Jonnie Capiro, Lead Keeper, Nikita Kahn Rhino Rescue Center, San Diego Zoo Safari Park
I’ve been so fortunate to have a front row seat to Victoria’s pregnancy and Edward’s birth. As a keeper, I get to work with the rhinos and scientists at the Nikita Kahn Rhino Rescue Center every day. Witnessing groundbreaking science unfold in the name of rhino conservation is incredible.
Victoria Seemed “Different”
On Friday, July 26, 2019, the keeper team was convinced that Victoria would have her calf by the end of the weekend, if not sooner. She just seemed “different.”
All our teams were notified and put on stand-by—veterinarians, keepers, scientists, public relations, the executive team—everyone. Nothing happened Friday evening, so when the overnight keepers showed up for their shift, I went home at my scheduled time. With all the anticipation, it was hard for me to fall asleep. But eventually I did, and there was no “it’s happening!” phone call in the middle of the night.
The next day, Saturday, Victoria seemed the same—restless, a little grumpy—but she showed no signs of imminent labor. We had keepers monitoring her around the clock, but otherwise, it was business as usual.
The Big Day
On Sunday, Victoria was especially restless and impatient. She didn’t want to be near the other rhinos at all. For most animals, including rhinos, self-separation indicates that labor is imminent. She also didn’t want to eat her hay, which is unusual for her.
I called the veterinarians to make sure they were up-to-date with Victoria’s progress. We thought we had several more hours before anything happened, but I moved Victoria into the maternity area of the barn, just in case.
When I examined Victoria, I could tell she was in the early stages of labor. I radioed the veterinarians to let them know that Victoria was progressing quickly—much more quickly than we had anticipated. The vets and other keepers came running to the barn. They helped me move Victoria out of the birth area so that we could add lots of extra hay to the floor. It made a fluffy bed.
Countdown to a Baby Rhino
Victoria waited in a temporary holding stall while we laid down the extra hay in the birth area. And while she was waiting, her water broke! She was still up and walking around, so we moved her back into the birth area. She didn’t seem to want us moving around too much, so we stood quietly to the side.
I stepped out of the barn to collect the “birth kit.” This carefully designed kit has everything a keeper might need during a rhino birth, including a stopwatch, notebooks, a camera, flashlights, gloves, and other supplies.
With no further preparations to complete, we simply watched and waited. This was really happening!
A Milestone in Rhino Conservation
Victoria was restless. She alternated between walking around and laying down on her side. At 5:31 p.m., stage 1 of her labor had officially begun. Even though we were ecstatic, we watched very quietly from the hallway of the barn.
She laid down again on her side, and the calf began to emerge. We stood on our tiptoes, peering to see if the baby was positioned head first or feet first. We determined that it was head first—perfect!
At about 6:00 p.m., Victoria pushed a few times and the calf was born! She stood up and whirled around to look at her baby. I could see it moving! I was so excited!
Victoria looked at her calf in wonder. He used his gangly legs and giant feet to try to stand up. I'll never forget the moment he saw the keepers for the very first time. He looked at his mom, then at us, and then at the enormous world around him!
It Was Perfect
By 6:25 p.m. the calf had begun walking around Victoria, trying to nurse. He didn’t quite get it, at first—he suckled on her front leg for a while, then on her side, and even on her face! Finally, he made some little squeaks, signaling his hunger. This seemed to be just what Victoria needed to hear—she laid down and he began nursing! They have been inseparable ever since.
We were in awe. This actually happened, and it was perfect!
Edward is already curious and silly. He has approached the keepers out of curiosity, with Victoria close behind him. She’s doing a great job at being a mom. Edward is still learning how to use his legs, but his ears never stop moving. And they’re fuzzy, just like Victoria’s!
An Attentive Mother
The other day, Victoria and Edward went outside for the first time since he was born. They napped in the sand pile, enjoying the sun. It was warm, so we made a new wallow for them. Victoria rolled and rolled in the mud, cleaning off and cooling down. Little Edward just watched her.
Then she did the most fascinating thing. She scooped up mud in her wide mouth and wiped it all over his back! Throughout the day, she reapplied more mud to him. Rhinos use mud to protect their sensitive skin from harsh sun and biting insects. No one I have talked to has ever seen this behavior before. Victoria is truly amazing!
You Make Miracles Possible
Edward is the first southern white rhino born by artificial insemination in North America. He's a symbol of hope for rhinos worldwide, and his birth is a critical milestone in our program to save his cousin, the northern white rhino. With only 2 northern white rhinos left on the planet, we're racing against the clock to save these gentle giants before it's too late.
It's an honor to care for our family of rhinos. On behalf of the entire animal care staff, and all of us at the Nikita Kahn Rhino Rescue Center, thank you for your continued support. Miracles like Edward would not be possible without the support of friends like you. You bring us one step closer to saving these sweet, sensitive animals from extinction—one little rhino at a time!