Sheltering in place: Lansing’s baby rhino and his mom are doing fine

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FRIDAY, March 20 — One of the most eagerly awaited events of spring 2020 in Greater Lansing was the first public appearance of Jaali, the baby black rhino born Christmas Eve 2019.

As the COVID-19 pandemic locks down Lansing’s public facilities, including the zoo, the rhino rollout will have to wait a while.

But Jaali and his mother, Doppsee, are in excellent health, nuzzling and schmoozing with keepers and charming the world to distraction via Potter Park’s Facebook page. They were already sheltering in place, in a barn with unlimited hay, long before the rest of us were. As the weather warms, they’re starting to take a few forays into the yard.

Pat Fountain, head zookeeper at Potter Park Zoo said Jaali is “doing great.” The toddler weighed in at 230 pounds Saturday, about normal for a two and a half month old.

Zookeepers have already begun “target training” Jaali. To get him used to working with trainers, they wave a PVC tube with a tennis ball at one end and say, “target.” If Jaali comes and touches the ball, he gets a treat — either the same food his mom likes, such as yams and apples, or an affectionate rub or scratch on the head.

“Eventually, he associates the treat with something good,” Fountain said.

National rhino researchers and specialists who helped Potter Park staff in the months leading up to Doppsee’s mating and Jaali’s birth were amazed the close bond keepers had with her. Doppsee loves to be rubbed and scratched. During her pregnancy, she even trusted the keepers to do blood tests and rectal ultrasounds without flinching.

Now those months of bonding are paying off again, Fountain said. Nobody was sure whether Doppsee would become more wary after giving birth, or if the presence of Jaali would change the equation.

But Jaali loves a head scratch as much as his mom as seems just as much at ease with the keepers.

Fountain said Jaali observed his mother’s close bond with the keepers and it rubbed off on him right away.

“He comes over to us for attention,” Fountain said. “He got that from her.”

Zoo-wide, Potter Park staff and zoo veterinarian Eustace Ronin aren’t concerned about coronavirus affecting the animals, Jaali and Doppsee included. Even though the virus is thought to have crossed over to humans because a bat bit an animal (probably a pangolin) purchased at a live animal market in China, the CDC has found no evidence of animals, including domestic animals, getting COVID-19. Fountain knows of no COVID-19 cases among zoo animals.

“We’re more concerned with the staff, making sure everyone’s staying safe and washing their hands while we work,” Fountain said.

As the weather warms, the staff has been gradually acclimating Jaali to the yard. Having fewer people around seems to be helping along with the process.

During the shutdown, the zoo is sticking to its usual round of feeding times, cleaning, animal exercise and other routines.

“There’s just less going on for all of us,” Fountain said.

Until the zoo reopens, virtual visitors in search of something fun to look at can check out Jaali’s latest antics at the Potter Park Zoo’s Facebook page.

There, you’ll find adorable footage of Doppsee making a hay bed for Jaali, Jaali licking zookeepers and other sweet moments.

However, Fountain said Jaali is not all sugar and spice. He’s still a male, and has a bit of his combative father, Phineus, in him.

“He likes to get riled up and play,” Fountain said. “Sometimes, with the keepers, he’ll throw his head around a little bit, to show you he’s a tough rhino. It’s just hard to take him seriously when he’s so cute.”

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