February 18, 2021
Joona: Our Joy and Treasure
A Rhino Keeper Reflects on Joona’s Miraculous Birth and Her Amazing First Year
By Chris Bobko, Toyota Elephant Passage Keeper
I will never forget the moment when we first knew that your mother Tensing was pregnant with you! It was a Saturday morning, and I was off that day but received a text from the rhino team that indeed we had a pregnant rhino. To say that I was joyful limits the true emotion that flowed through my body – I literally dropped to my knees and started to cry. Why? It had been a very long wait (for me personally) – more than 28 years had gone by at Denver Zoo since we last heard the tiny pitter patter of baby rhino feet. You, sweet Joona, were the answers to my prayers for our first greater one-horned calf, and the very first baby rhino for the rest of my teammates. You were already so loved from the very start of your journey.
Since this was Tensing’s first pregnancy, we waited with high hopes and prepared as best as possible for your arrival into our world. We understood that with this species of rhino, first time pregnancies have a 40 percent chance of either ending in miscarriage or stillbirth. Even with this sobering statistic, we chose to remain positive. We made sure your mother had the very best chance by ensuring she gained the proper amount of weight during pregnancy, adding in a daily exercise program to keep her fit, and weekly ultrasounds to keep our eye on your development. Those 16 months were the longest of our lives, little one. In the final month of Tensing’s pregnancy, we did a little nesting of our own, installing cameras in Tensing’s birthing stall, and making her comfortable and ready for birth.
Tensing’s labor started on a Thursday afternoon with a lot of pacing, restlessness, and vocalizations – several of us stayed that night, but you still were not ready to come out. Labor continued into Friday afternoon when we saw more promising signs, so the entire rhino team settled in for a very long night. We brought cots, pillows and LOTS of food so that we would be comfortable in the long wait. We all wanted to be there for your arrival! Throughout Tensing’s labor, we were in contact with several of our colleagues from other institutions that had experience with greater one-horned births so we could compare notes and progress.
At 10:09 pm on February 21st, a portion of the birth sac came out and erupted, a critical point in the birth process. Once the birth sac has been ruptured, the calf needs to arrive within the next hour. Our clock was ticking, but Tensing was so exhausted from the long labor that she literally just laid backdown to rest – no more signs of labor. My heart landed in my stomach and filled with unease. Your keepers, veterinary staff, and managers discussed any and all options, but in the end, we had to let Tensing’s body decide all of our fates. It was 11:30 and one and a half hours had now passed. Our hopes waned with each passing minute, and the sense of loss started to overwhelm us. We thought you were gone.
We waited in silence, but that soon turned into embraces filled with tears and sobs, as the realization that our dream was turning into our worst nightmare. I have been lucky enough to experience the joy of several baby rhinos, so to see the look on my teammates’ faces was the most devastating thing for me. Our team had been up for the last 48 hours, so we decided that our manager and a veterinarian would stay to monitor Tensing’s delivery of what we feared would be a stillborn calf.
Around midnight, we all got into our cars and went home filled with exhaustion and sorrow. I sobbed, yelled and screamed the entire way home. When I got home, I just fell into bed, willing the day to be over. At 1:15 am, my cell phone rang, and in my drowsy haze, I barely muttered a hello before I heard, “We have a LIVE calf on the ground!” I leapt out of bed screaming with joy, asking how this was even possible. My manager was on the other end of the phone laughing and crying, “I don’t know, but it’s a miracle!” Tensing has always done things on what we like to refer to as Tensing Time. That is exactly what she did with you, Joona. So why are you a miracle? Because you are the ONLY known greater one-horned calf to have been born alive after three hours from the birth sac being ruptured.
The next morning, when I laid eyes on you for the very first time, I collapsed again to my knees in gratitude and love for our precious miracle. You have brought us so many joys in a year filled with such sadness and difficulty, Joona. When I chose your name for the naming contest, I wanted to try and capture what your birth truly meant to me and the team. Joona means “gift” or “treasure” in Nepalese, and you, June Bug, have been an extraordinary gift to us, Denver Zoo, and our community. So, keep that sweet personality, curious heart, and amazing courage little one as you grow into a beautiful adult rhino. We love you so very much, and thank you for filling our hearts with so much happiness. Happy 1st Birthday to our little miracle!!
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