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Michigan's Potter Park Zoo Welcomes Birth Of Black Rhino Calf

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It's a boy. That's what an announcement from Potter Park Zoo in Lansing, Mich., said on Tuesday. The zoo's 12-year-old black rhino Doppsee gave birth to a calf on Christmas Eve. Now, black rhinos are critically endangered, and wildlife watchers see the calf's birth as an important success for conservationists. I'm joined now by Amy Morris-Hall, the executive director of the Potter Park Zoological Society, and Pat Fountain, the zoo's animal care supervisor.

Welcome to both of you.

AMY MORRIS-HALL: Thank you.

PAT FOUNTAIN: Yeah. Thank you so much.

CHANG: OK, Pat, I want to start with you. I understand that you made it to the zoo just in time to witness this birth. Can you just tell us what it was like?

FOUNTAIN: It was really very special. This is a once-in-a-lifetime event, not only for our zoo but for most people who care for rhinos - get to see this maybe once in their lifetime.

CHANG: Wow.

FOUNTAIN: So we are very, very excited. I came into the barn just after the baby had hit the ground, and mom was cleaning it up. So I got to witness it from about a minute after it was born.

CHANG: All right. Amy, as we said, you know, the black rhino - it is critically endangered. Can you just tell us what that means; to be critically endangered?

MORRIS-HALL: Well, there are less than 5,000 black rhino in the world. There are only 50 in zoos that are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, so it's pretty amazing that we were able to participate in the breeding program...

CHANG: Yeah.

MORRIS-HALL: ...And have a successful birth. It's just unbelievable.

CHANG: The way I understand it, Pat, breeding black rhinos in captivity is pretty hard, right? Like, this isn't just some automatic thing, obviously.

FOUNTAIN: Right. The success rate for breeding black rhinos in captivity is pretty low. There's only about two born in the U.S. in AZA-accredited zoos every year.

CHANG: AZA - Association of Zoos and Aquariums - and why is it so hard to breed black rhinos?

FOUNTAIN: First of all, it's very hard to find two compatible rhinos.

CHANG: You mean to know which two are going to vibe with each other (laughter).

FOUNTAIN: (Laughter) Yeah. Both of our rhinos are first-time parents, so the fact that they were able to get together and then successfully breed and carry this full-term was a really big deal because neither one of them really knew exactly what they were doing at first.

CHANG: I love it, so they're both first-time daters. What's the courtship like between black rhinos?

FOUNTAIN: In the wild, they have a very particular courtship. And we try to recreate it in the zoo the best we can. If Phineus, our dad, was in the wild, he would walk around. And he'd find some poop from a female, and he'd take a nice, big smell.

CHANG: (Laughter).

FOUNTAIN: And that would tell him how ready the female is to reproduce. So he would sniff it, and he'd go, there's a girl around here. I should find her. And he'd walk around, and he'd find her.

MORRIS-HALL: It's kind of romantic.

CHANG: OK. And then what happens after the poop-sniffing?

FOUNTAIN: As he gets all excited, the female will kind of beat him up for a couple of days and say...

CHANG: What?

FOUNTAIN: I'm not ready yet. There's a lot of sparring. It can be pretty intense at times.

CHANG: Amy, tell us. What does a birth like this mean for the zoo's conservation efforts?

MORRIS-HALL: Our people are passionate about rhino conservation, and this success is evidence of how much they care and how hard they work. It was really amazing. And watching the courtship over the last several seasons was pretty challenging to staff because, as Pat mentioned, Phineus took quite a beating.

CHANG: OK, so the baby has not yet been named, right? Is that correct?

MORRIS-HALL: Correct.

CHANG: OK. But he is already a social media darling, I understand. What's going on?

MORRIS-HALL: He's gone pretty crazy on social media, so we're still making decisions about how we're going to do the naming. But we will be making an announcement relatively soon.

CHANG: I love it. And is there, like, a baby cam on him so all of us not in Lansing, Mich., can watch?

FOUNTAIN: Yeah. We have a closed-circuit camera going right now that - on a DVR that records everything. So we've been pulling all the videos off and all the cute things he does and then putting it on our social media.

CHANG: I am definitely going to be watching. That is Pat Fountain, the zoo's animal care supervisor, and Amy Morris-Hall, the executive director of the Potter Park Zoological Society.

Thanks to both of you.

MORRIS-HALL: Thank you.

FOUNTAIN: Thank you for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.