For ISU veterinarian and vet students, an endangered black rhino’s pregnancy is a (very) big deal

DES MOINES, Iowa – Dr. June Olds holds the transducer of the portable ultrasound device next to the belly of Ayana, one of two endangered black rhinos at Blank Park Zoo.

Ayana, temporarily situated for the procedure in an enclosure behind her pen, seems a little nervous at first, but she quickly calms down as a zookeeper gives her armfuls of alfalfa hay, apples and carrots. Ayana’s surprisingly dexterous upper lip – sometimes referred to as a “hooked” or “pointed” lip – extends outward to guide the food into her mouth.

Before long, Ayana is munching happily, and Olds is gently pressing the transducer, covered in gel to improve the bond, against the rhino’s abdomen.

It doesn’t take Olds long to find what she’s looking for as she peers back over her shoulder at the ultrasound machine’s monitor:  a healthy fetus that promises to be the first rhino to be born at Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines.

To the untrained eye, it’s difficult to make out much detail. But Olds studies the image closely and points out the ribs. A moment later, she spots the spine.

“Getting a lot of detail on the ultrasound can be difficult,” Olds said later. “But we saw movement, and everything looked how we want it to.”

Olds, a clinician in the ISU Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences and Blank Park Zoo’s senior veterinarian, says black rhinos typically have a gestation period of around 16 months, meaning the baby likely will be born in late fall. But the zoo hasn’t announced a more specific due date just yet.

There’s already a sense of heightened anticipation at the zoo. This won’t just be the first baby rhino delivered at the zoo. It’ll also be Ayana’s first baby. Ditto for the father, Kiano, an almost 6-year-old rhino who paces across the pen in the public viewing area not far from where Ayana’s ultrasound is taking place.

Once Olds has gathered the information she needs from the ultrasound, zoo employees open up the enclosure, and Ayana lumbers forward into the larger pen, once again free to venture outside into the summer sunlight.

Rare creatures

Black rhinos are native to eastern and southern Africa. Changes in habitat and, most gravely, illegal poaching have devastated the black rhino population, leaving them critically endangered.

Olds said only about 5,500 black rhinos remain in the wild today, with around 60 in zoos in the United States. So news of Ayana’s pregnancy spread quickly among conservation and wildlife groups, who greeted the announcement with optimism.

Ayana and Kiano made their debut at Blank Park Zoo in 2012 and quickly became one of its prime attractions, Olds said.

“Our rhinos came here as youngsters,” she said. “We built the rhino exhibit, and they came here when they were about two years old. They were meant to be a breeding pair, and so this will be the first time we’ve had a baby rhino born in Iowa.”

For Samantha Ford and Emily Eulberg, both fourth-year ISU veterinary students who recently completed a four-week rotation at the zoo, Ayana’s pregnancy has provided a learning experience that neither could find anywhere else.

Olds’ dual appointment with Iowa State and Blank Park Zoo created the opportunity to provide ISU students with hands-on experience with the zoo’s wide range of species, everything from tortoises to peacocks to wallabies.

Eulberg, a Cedar Rapids native who wants to pursue a career in small exotic animal medicine, and Ford, a Belle Plaine native pursuing wildlife medicine, both had front-row seats for Ayana’s recent ultrasound. And both agreed their rotations at the zoo will prepare them for their careers in ways other rotations couldn’t.

For instance, Eulberg said other clinical rotations often focus exclusively on certain procedures or on one species in particular. At Blank Park Zoo, the experience was much broader, she said.

“With zoo medicine, you learn the basics and then you have to apply them to everything,” Eulberg said. “So this is a really good way for me to learn how to take everything I learned in vet school and apply it in a very uniform way.”

Ford said each day brought a new opportunity to learn.

“I think every day we’ve done something different,” she said. “The doctors here are great teachers.”

Olds said variety is one of the best parts of the job. She oversees dietary evaluations and overall health care monitoring for every animal in the zoo – from the tiniest frog to 3,000-pound rhinos.  

“The challenge with being a zoo veterinarian is you constantly have to be able to switch gears from one species to another,” she said.

That ensures there’s seldom a dull moment and requires lifelong learning from zoo staff, Olds said. And, as Ayana’s due date nears this fall, that commitment to constant learning means Blank Park Zoo’s newest arrival will be in good hands.