Kansas City, Mo. A female rhinoceros of a critically endangered breed is in the latter stages of an apparently healthy pregnancy at the Kansas City Zoo.
The birth sometime this summer will mean one step back from the brink of extinction for the eastern black subspecies of rhino, of which only a few hundred remain.
For an exhilarated zoo staff, this is the big prize. It is the culmination of years of effort and anguish, and two trips to South Africa to collect females from the wild.
"This is what the whole darned thing is about," said chief veterinarian Kirk Suedmeyer, pinching his fingers together for emphasis. "We're that close now."
Grainy images of the wriggling 50-pound fetus appeared on small screens Thursday as the mother, Luyisa, patiently allowed humans to perform an ultrasound procedure on her enormous belly.
"This white line is the skin of the fetus, there's an ear here," said Suedmeyer, pointing to the black and white picture.
Moments later what appeared to be the baby's snout came into view, as the vet reached between the bars of a restraint and gently rubbed the gel-covered ultrasound wand across Luyisa's skin.
Visitors were warned to be quiet and still around the one-ton animal.
"Black rhinos notoriously respond negatively to anything unusual," said zookeeper Wendy Shaffstall, who called out reassuringly to the mother: "Good girl. We've got some company here today. Very good girl."
Zookeeper Aimee Goldcamp focused Luyisa's attention during the procedure by feeding bits of apple, yam and banana into her mouth. A country radio station provided background noise for the animal.
This was not the first ultrasound that Luyisa has had to put up with. Zoo staffers have spent literally hundreds of hours over several years to get the animal comfortable with the restraint and the touch of human hands. She even permits rectal ultrasounds.
The Kansas City Zoo is one of two zoos able to routinely perform such procedures on a rhino without drugging the animal.
Suedmeyer and vet technician Lani Castaner knelt on the concrete floor while administering the ultrasound.
They were able to measure the fetus as well as the amniotic fluid surrounding it.
"The fetus is moving, there's plenty of fluid," Suedmeyer said. "As best we can tell, everything is proceeding like it should."
Captured for survival
In a separate stall on the other side of the barn, Rudy the sire rhino poked his horns through the bars, trying to get a better view.
He is one of two male rhinos acquired from other institutions after Kansas City built a spacious new breeding facility during the last decade's multimillion-dollar makeover of the zoo.
In 1996 and again in 1997, zoo Curator Conrad Schmitt traveled to South Africa to collect female rhinos for the breeding program. New bloodlines were needed to broaden the gene pool of the captive population.
But the first female was sickly and died a year ago. Only then did the zoo learn she had been pregnant.
Luyisa, whose collection from Africa was reported firsthand by The Kansas City Star, has been healthy, and her pregnancy has been monitored by ultrasound for six months.
Officials still don't know whether she is carrying a male or female, but they are hoping for a female because young rhinos in captivity are disproportionately male.
Luyisa will remain on display on weekends until mid-July when she will retire to her stall to await the birth. After about 16 months of gestation, babies can weigh 80 to 100 pounds.
If everything goes well, zoo visitors next spring will be treated to the sight of a rhino calf the first milestone in what the Kansas City Zoo hopes will be a long and productive breeding program.
"All the money spent and all the time put in comes down to the day that (Luyisa) has the baby," Schmitt said. "And when it successfully is an adult and starts reproducing its own offspring, then we're really there."