Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Ashakiran – "Ray of Hope"

Ashakiran's smile

In November of 2012, I began my 10-week training course in order to become a Year-Round Volunteer at the Toronto Zoo. Our class met every Friday – the day I chose to stick with as my "regular shift" – for an intensive eight-hour session which included many opportunities to practice what we were learning. In the middle of those 10 weeks (in December) we broke from our studies for two weeks of "shadowing" a veteran Volunteer to watch how he or she ran a tour. This was followed by a three-week break for Christmas, but we were encouraged to do more shadowing if we wished to gain as much experience as possible. My mentor, Glen, was another Friday Volunteer and, after the two required weeks, I asked if he had any more tours scheduled for the next week, December 21, and would he mind if I accompanied him one more time? He looked into it and discovered he was leading a very special tour: a behind-the-scenes visit for a Grade 8 class. I had to get special permission from my amazing Volunteer Coordinator, Karen, to be allowed to tag along, as it was extremely likely that nobody else in my class of approximately 30 trainees would have the same opportunity. I did receive that permission, with the proviso that I simply watch and listen and not get in the way of the students' experience, as they had paid a lot of extra money to be allowed this chance. As the big day approached, we learned that one half of the class would be visiting the giraffes in the morning and the camels in the afternoon, while the other half would see the Indian rhinos followed by the giraffes. As luck would have it, Glen and I led the group which went to the rhino house. I didn't know it at the time, but this twist of fate would change my life forever.

This, then, is the story of how I met Ashakiran for the first time. 

Amanda feeding Asha some of her favourite treats
We were greeted at the rhino house by John Armstrong, a keeper who began his career at the Toronto Zoo almost exactly one month after it opened in 1974. I took an instant shine to his manner and character, and was looking forward to the opportunity to learn from him. Glen and I brought up the rear of the line of students and teachers as we passed through the fence gate and headed for the back of the building, entering into the big kitchen. John had prepared a bucket of carrots, each cut into two pieces, and began to hand them out to the students while talking about the rhinos and preparing the kids for the encounter they were about to have. I tried to stay as inconspicuous as possible – as had been requested of me – but John was having none of this. He tossed carrots at Glen and me and insisted we have a chance to get involved in the feeding as well. The group of us headed out of the kitchen and into a kind of "runway" along the wire fence (similar in style to the one in the photo here) at the north end of the paddock where we all spread out and stood a bit awkwardly, holding our carrots, while John called out to Ashakiran, who was strolling around the grass on this unseasonably warm December day. She turned to look at him, took note of the smell of the delicious goodies, and ambled over slowly and magnificently. She was an impressive beast up close, to be sure.

Grumpy P at the polar bear table with his red winter coat
One by one the young lads and lasses were encouraged to approach the fence and feed Asha. John repeatedly and forcefully reminded all of us of the importance of being absolutely sure we kept our arms above the third "rail" when we fed her, as passing a limb through the more inviting second gap could result in instant loss of said limb should Asha suddenly raise up her enormous head for any reason. Each person feeding her was instructed to hold out the carrot on an open palm and let Asha stick out her semi-prehensile upper lip (see the photo above) to grab the treat and pull it (and, usually, the hand) into her mouth. While I found this experience to be positively exhilarating – and took the opportunity to rub Asha on and around her nubby horn after she took the carrot from me – several of the younger folk were a bit "grossed out" by the sensation and began to look for a place to wipe the saliva off of their hands. I let a few of them use the hem of my well-worn knee-length red coat (seen in this photo) and that seemed to do the trick. There were more carrot pieces than attendees, so John let a few of us feed Asha multiple times if we wished. I fed her at least twice more, because I really couldn't get enough of her gentleness and the sensation of that upper lip caressing my palm. After a while, we were out of carrots and John moved to the far end of the runway, near the outdoor hay "dispenser", and the class moved down there while he continued to talk about the rhinos and his work at the Zoo. Ashakiran followed them all to that end while I stayed behind, my back against the wall of the other end, trying to process the events that had just taken place. 

Ashakiran on a breeding day (Vishnu in background)
At some point Asha realized that there were no more carrots forthcoming and became bored with the wait. She turned around and headed back to where I was standing, which was a thrilling sight. When she reached me she sniffed loudly and then stuck her head into the lowest gap in the fence, extended her upper lip as far as it could go, and proceeded to pull the hem of my (no doubt yummy-smelling) winter coat into her mouth. Having already interacted with this huge beast, I thought nothing of gently tugging back on my coat until I had retrieved it from her, all the while murmuring "No, Asha, no," and rubbing her on top of her horn and along her right cheek. Once I had my coat back I straightened up a little and focused again on the class and the lesson, but continued to rub and "scritch" Asha absent-mindedly. After a little while I suddenly realized what I was doing and brought my hand away with a start, thinking "Oh my goodness, I'm patting a rhinoceros!" Asha, of course, was considerably less impressed by this idea, so she opened her right eye, looked at me, and brought her head closer to the fence so I would be encouraged to go right on with my rubbing. I was over the moon and I continued to do her bidding until it was time for all of us to depart the area. We thanked John profusely and walked across the Zoo to the old giraffe house for our next encounter. Along the way, I noticed that not only was I lost in thought but the entire class was silently contemplating the incredible experience they had just shared. 

Rhino love
Most of you reading this will know of my ongoing struggle with depression and anxiety. I've spoken of it at great length on social media, encouraging others to break through the stigma of mental health issues. When I began my training at the Zoo, I was just on the cusp of a major "dip" in my own depressive cycle. The encounter I had that day with Ashakiran was a life-altering experience without even a hint of hyperbole. After that I knew without a doubt that I was destined to spend my time left on this planet focusing on the plight of animals and their habitats, and trying to encourage children to share this passion. While there are myriad species of animals I adore – both at the Zoo and elsewhere – it is this 11-year-old greater one-horned rhinoceros who is my absolute individual favourite of all time. I do not for a second think it's a coincidence or a surprise that her name, translated from Sanskrit, means "Ray of Hope."

Playing "hard to get"?
On some of my darkest days I would be sure to drop in to see if I could spend some time with my sweetie, whether inside the house or in the yard. I have spent many hours just quietly standing and watching her go about her business, and many's the time that I have converted friends and other Zoo guests to the belief that she is one of the most beautiful creatures on the planet. And for several consecutive "cycles" she had (which only occur every 56 days or so) it seemed I was on hand to witness the breeding process. It got to the point where one of the rhino keepers dubbed me the "breeder-whisperer." But for all the hanky-panky that went on, it seemed to be very difficult for Ashakiran to become pregnant again; she had miscarried a calf in, I believe, 2011 and many of us – John especially – were very anxious for her to have another chance. In the summer of 2014 it looked like she might finally be on her way, as she missed a cycle, but later that year I saw her and Vishnu back out together and I knew what that meant. It was upsetting enough that I stopped asking the keepers if she was pregnant from that point through the winter and into the spring of last year. Little did I know, however, that the last time I saw them breeding was the magic moment.

That sweet, sweet face
Last April, as I was gazing out at Asha in her paddock, John came up behind me and asked, "Does she look bigger to you?" I spun around with a huge grin and said, "Are you kidding me??" He wasn't. Asha was well on her way this time, having carried a pregnancy through the winter. I kept this information to myself at his request for a week or so, until the beans were spilled at a Volunteer meeting later in the month on a day where it had been learned that she had reached the progesterone spike they had been waiting for. From then on, with the help of an oral progesterone supplement suggested by the Cincinnati Zoo, it looked more and more promising for all concerned. The target date was sometime in February of this year (the gestation period of an Indian rhino is about 16 months) with many people saying the math suggested February 5th but John (who retired last fall) insisting it would be around the 17th. So, for probably the first time in my life, I actively wished for February to hurry up and arrive. And when it did, I visited Asha every single day but one for the first 16 days. I watched her get bigger and bigger; I watched her grow more uncomfortable; I watched the maintenance crew put up a fence in the front of her indoor enclosure so that a newborn would not wander off and fall into the pool. And I got more and more excited every day. And then, on the afternoon of February 17th, I went into the rhino house to find Vishnu sleeping by the keeper door. I waited there a short time and then I heard a strange sound coming from the back pens: a kind of lowing sound that I had never heard before but could only be coming from Asha. Then she smashed into the metal door, over and over, apparently with her horn. Once she stopped doing that for a while, the lowing began again. Labour had clearly begun. I went home super-excited, knowing that it could still take a couple of days, but also fully aware that John had predicted the 17th – that very day – all along. So it was really no surprise when I heard from a keeper the next day at noon that Ashakiran had given birth to a healthy calf – a son – at 9:42 the night before. And I was thrilled when Dr. Bill Rapley told everyone at the Volunteer meeting that evening about the birth, so I didn't have to keep it a secret any longer. 

And then the next day, the Toronto Zoo posted this picture on social media:

Ashakiran and son

And I could no longer hold it in. I wept openly for quite a while, because of everything this little baby  – and his beautiful mother – means to me. There has been a hell of a baby boom at the Zoo recently. The lion cubs are adorable. The panda cubs defy description and will be on display in a couple of weeks. I have had a couple of chances to see the unfairly cute polar bear cub, Juno, and have already made impactful eye contact with her. All of these pale in comparison, though, to this one birth. And honestly: has there been a more beautiful photo of any mother and baby at our Zoo in the past many years than the one above, taken by Matt (another rhino keeper)?

I love all the other seven babies (and there are more to come). But this one? This one brings me peace. This one brings me hope. This one brings me a new "happy place."

And I could not possibly be prouder of any animal than I am of Ashakiran. Ray of Hope? More than she'll ever know.

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