MSU veterinarians to help deliver baby black rhino at zoo

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

A rare black rhino at a Lansing zoo is pregnant and is being carefully observed by Michigan State University veterinarians until her delivery, officials announced Thursday.

Zookeepers at Potter Park Zoo say Doppsee, a first-time expectant mother, is due in late December or early January.

During her 15-month pregnancy, veterinarians and students from MSU's College of Veterinary Medicine and Medical Center are working alongside zoo staff to monitor her and plan for the delivery. 

Doppsee, a rare black rhino, is pregnant at the Potter Park Zoo under close observation by MSU veterinarians.

Black rhinos are critically endangered and, officials say, the baby will be one of only a few born in the world this year. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, 5,000 black rhinos remain in the wild and about 60 at zoos in the United States.

Doppsee, who is 12 years old, arrived at the zoo in 2011 from Kansas as part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Species Survival Plan. The median life expectancy for a black rhino is 18.3 years, according to the zoo's website.

"While we likely won’t be able to see a fetus on a transabdominal ultrasound for a few more months, we have confirmed fluid in her uterus via rectal ultrasound, which is indicative of pregnancy," zoo officials said in a statement. 

Zookeepers spent months introducing Doppsee and their other rhino, Phineus, to each other with the hopes that they would breed. Phineus, a 12-year-old male black rhino from Texas, moved to the zoo in April 2017.

Phineus and Doppsee at the Potter Park Zoo.

"Before breeding between them even began, zoo staff and the veterinarians worked diligently to make sure it would be safe for all animals and people involved," Cynthia Wagner, director of Potter Park Zoo and MSU alumna, said in a statement to MSU. "The zoo community as a whole has been working together to understand the breeding and reproduction process of rhinos."

Rhino courtship isn't easy, zoo officials said. Breeding can be aggressive, with the rhinos often charging and sparring with each other. However, they saw Doppsee was finally accepting Phineus' attention after she allowed him to rest his head on her.

Julie Strachota, clinical instructor for MSU’s Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, said she never would have expected to be doing ultrasounds on a rhino as a part of her training to become a theriogenologist — a veterinarian who focuses on reproduction. 

She and Carla Carleton, professor emeritus for the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, confirmed pregnancy through multiple ultrasound evaluations with zoo Dr. Ronan Eustace.

Potter Park Zoo Director of Animal Health, Dr. Ronan Eustace (center) ultrasounds Doppsee the 12 year old pregnant black rhino.

"Dr. Eustace always welcomes us to bring as many students as we can to work with the animals at Potter Park Zoo," Strachota said. "During one of our ultrasound examinations, one of the senior students that I took to see Doppsee commented that it was ‘the best day of veterinary school.’ What the zoo is doing for our veterinary curriculum is invaluable."

Beyond the significance of her pregnancy in the effort to conserve black rhinos, Doppsee has a rare personality and attitude, Eustace said.

"She isn’t like most rhinos. Just by using her favorite foods and treats, we’ve been able to train Doppsee for abdominal and rectal ultrasounds, blood draws and exams," Eustace said.

Animal care and veterinary staff will continue to monitor Doppsee throughout her pregnancy. The public can watch their progress on the zoo's social media.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_