Sunday, May 1, 2016

2016 Connecting with Animals Calendar – May Story

Scout (L) and Lafawnduh

Penguins!! This month's featured animals are a pair of young African penguins who are part of the colony of 23 currently residing at the Toronto Zoo. And why does that make me excited enough to put the first word in bold and italics with two (2) exclamation points, you may ask? Well, it's because....ha ha ha, oh come on. Is there really anyone reading this who is legitimately asking that question? "The Grumpy Penguin", "Wandering Penguin", "pengo_steve...", penguin costume, penguin collectibles, Mario Lemieux sweater....the list goes on and on. Penguins have long lived atop my list of favourite animals – although these days they are certainly being pushed hard for that honour, if they've not actually been caught. But I don't expect they will ever finish out of the running, not after this many years.

Biff! Squish those sno-bees!
I can't be 100% sure when my affinity for penguins actually began, but I have an excellent idea of when it took a firm hold in the consciousnesses of all of my friends and family. In 1982 Sega released an arcade game called "Pengo" where the player controls a little red penguin with a joystick and single button. The object of the game is to run around a maze of ice blocks, avoiding and squishing (with those blocks) the evil "sno-bees", while also trying to line up the three blocks marked with diamonds before the round ends. (An incomplete screen shot is shown at left.) In 1983-84, after a crushing relationship failure, I spent very likely weeks of my life at the Innis College pub at U of T, playing a tabletop version of this game either solo or with various friends, the most common being Brett MacMillan and Steve Palmer. I developed a tendency to exclaim "biff!" when I squished one of the nasty little blobs between ice blocks; to my horror, Brett decided that "Biff" should become my nickname. Even before the Back to the Future series had begun, I knew I was not going to be happy with this moniker unless we "dressed it up" a little. Between the two of us, we worked out that it needed to be spelled with only one "f"...but also a silent "3" for some reason which I am certain was the Funniest. Thing. Ever. ™ at the time of its creation. But even that wasn't "special" enough. No, we decided to make the "3" a superscript. And capitalize the "F". Thus, my nickname for the remainder of my 20s and a good chunk of my 30s was "Bi³F". This appeared in salutations, on invitations, on the backs of hockey sweaters, on a set of personalized licence plates, and even engraved on my bowling ball, complete with superscript. Yes, folks, we were that nerdy. Yes, I said "were". Ok, shut up. Now you're all just being mean.

If you see this bird, do not approach it!
In any event, the die was cast. From then on – continuing even through the present time – whenever anyone was looking for a gift for me and didn't know exactly what to get, they defaulted to something with a penguin on it. Over time I collected and received enough knick-knacks to fill a small room, with the majority of them being stuffed penguins of one kind or another. Obviously this has been just fine with me – I mean, I named my business after the animal – and as far as I am concerned it can go on forever. But from time-to-time (especially just before our move in 2014) I have had to jettison a large quantity of the items before they take over our lives completely. I have often wondered what goes through the mind of Value Village workers when they open up several blue recycling bags filled to overflowing with penguin stuffies. But even after several purges of various degrees of ruthlessness, I still have many lovely and meaningful penguins in my possession. And I'm ok with that.

But enough of my own personal back story. This post was supposed to be about the penguins at the Toronto Zoo. 

Right? Best shop name ever.
I was thrilled to see the return of the penguins to the Zoo in 2011. I don't recall for sure if Sarah and I went to see them on opening weekend, but it was absolutely within the first week they were on exhibit. Sometimes called "jackass penguins" because of their braying call (although it's certainly not unique to their species), African penguins are exactly in the middle of the size range of the 17 different species of penguin. They don't live in Antarctica, so they are never outside at the Zoo in the winter, much to the surprise of a healthy percentage of our visitors. In point of fact, they sometimes have to stay indoors through part of the summer as well, because they need a very temperate clime to survive – which I hope they do for a long time; however, their future is, sadly, quite grim at the moment due to overfishing (among other issues). The penguins at the Zoo are thriving right now, though, having increased their numbers from an original 12 to the current 23 (at last count). And even though it long ago closed up and moved away from their exhibit, the shop that opened up upon their arrival had quite likely the greatest shop name I have ever seen. 

Scooby (Doo), the clear favourite of at least one keeper
For those of you who received my 2016 Calendar from the first printing, I apologize: I did not print the names of the penguins in the May photo because I simply did not know which ones they were at the time it went to press. I have since found out (Scout and Lafawnduh, as I labeled at the top of this piece) and have also established the identity of the animal in a later photo, which I will divulge when the time comes. (I'll give you a hint: it's next month.) I showed the photo to one of the penguin keepers and they instantly were able to tell me who was who, because each of our penguins wears a different colour (and style) band on one flipper. This is especially essential at feeding time, which I was fortunate enough to help out with back in December while I was a "Keeper for a Day", something I had purchased through a silent auction on Vulture Awareness Day earlier in 2015. I held the clipboard and recorded each fish that each penguin received during the feedings (which I took part in twice!) and was thrilled to be able to interact with a couple of the more inquisitive birds, especially Wolfgang. The penguin in this photo is Scooby, who is a bit of a miracle bird because he probably shouldn't have survived into adulthood. He is noticeably thinner than the rest and because of his....wait for it...."pluck".... (yeah, sorry)... he is the particular favourite of keeper Kim. He is kind of adorable, for sure, but my own favourite will likely always be Eldon, who was the first one born at the Zoo a couple of years ago, and had no siblings (but had to watch the twins Chupa and Matata cavort in the pen right next door) so I took every opportunity to drop by the nursery and play with him through the glass (finger wiggling, light flashing, shadows, that sort of thing). And even though I say "him", it turned out much later that Eldon is a girl, but only after "he" laid an unexpected egg!

Ashley and Squeak. (Squeak is the penguin!)
Two years ago, I was thrilled to discover the Zoo was trying something new. Every day during the summer there is a penguin talk and feeding at 12:30. In 2014, this was followed daily (weather permitting) by a close encounter with one of the juveniles, which two of the keepers would carry out to a fenced-off area near the entrance to the exhibit, put down on the grass, and let run around for a bit while they answered questions or just interacted with the cute little creatures. This has been one of the highlights of my time at the Zoo and I made sure I dropped by the 1:00 "meet and greet" every chance I had. I am pretty sure I ended up with photos of every penguin in this program except for one, as I showed up a couple of dozen times at the very least. Last year they suspended the idea for the summer due to the concern over the avian flu, which invaded Ontario in the spring and caused myriad concerns for the Zoo. Every outdoor bird was late to appear on exhibit if they appeared at all; the peacocks who roam the grounds – a long-time staple of summers at the Toronto Zoo – never came out of their holding at any time. I knew I missed them (although the chipmunks, free of competition, certainly thrived) but had really no idea how much until I heard one of them call out for the first time a couple of weeks ago. It's not just the sight of them that really means summer at the Zoo, but the sound. In any event, I take the return of the peacocks as a very good sign. Perhaps we'll again have the chance to get up close and personal with my favourite little waddlers this summer. 

Next month: another "missing" name revealed, along with a really cool backstory to the photo. In the meantime, I'll leave you with this video which proves, once and for all, that penguins really can fly. Just not in the air.


Monday, April 4, 2016

Even "Good" Weather Can Be Toxic to the Depressed

I'm struggling today.

To be perfectly truthful I've been struggling a lot, off and on this winter and early spring. I have heard from a lot of friends in similar situations who have also struggled this winter. I am certain this has a great deal to do with the weather; at least, it does if you live in our area of North America. I know a lot of people out there likely can't comprehend how the mildest winter (in Toronto) in many, many years could possibly have a negative effect on anyone. Let me try to explain it, at least as I feel it.

My depression keeps me in a more or less constant state of struggling to find peace and balance; meaningfulness in my daily activities; order and structure and consistency among the chaos. It's difficult enough to find these things in situations where I have at least some semblance of control; when things are absolutely beyond my control – such as the weather – I have to rely on expected patterns to emerge and remain relatively constant. As I get stronger (it's not yet been two years since I sought help) the bumps and hiccoughs in life become ever smoother, in part because these, too, eventually form a pattern of recurrence that I can refer to when I am feeling anxious. But no matter how strong I eventually do get, my life's story has made me keenly aware that the best I can do is keep my depression in "remission" for as long as possible and that it's vitally important to stay on top of any dips that last just a bit too long.

How this is impacted by the weather (for me, at least) is actually quite simple. Even in Toronto, where locals know the lines between seasons are anything but crisp and well-defined, a winter like we've just had is exceptionally unusual. I've read that the El Niño effect this year was the strongest ever recorded. It might be easy for many people to look at the mild temperatures we had and be thankful we didn't get down to the extended record lows of just one year ago. But my depression won't let me take that attitude. I can't see the long periods of warmth as a blessing of any kind; rather, I have spent huge chunks of the past winter waiting for the other shoe to drop. Winter never really hit – not in any meaningful, Canadian way – and that made it impossible for me to get on any kind of a mental schedule. On top of that, every time we had a prolonged period of spring-like weather, it was inevitably followed by a drop in temperature and a series of dismal days that, had they occurred in a natural pattern, would have been tolerable. But they didn't...and they weren't. It felt like the whole winter was one long February. It felt like I was on a leash and every time I was able to see some progress being made, something yanked on the other end of it and pulled me back toward darkness. You see, when you're depressed a succession of good days is not what you notice, but rather a series of what feel like crushing blows. And this winter, for all its good days for many people, had a very long series of crushing blows.

Today in Toronto we woke up to a big dumping of snow overnight. And it's April the 4th. Do we often get one last dumping in Toronto in April? Yes, we do. But then it ordinarily follows a winter of normal weather patterns. If we're not going to have snow for Christmas; if I can have my shorts on in my home (with the heater off) for much of February and March; if we can hear red-winged blackbirds before St. Patrick's Day; well, then a snowfall in April is just a slap in the face. No thank you, Mother Nature. Bring winter on time, or just skip it altogether. Ain't nobody got time for that, indeed.

I did manage to keep my streak alive by going out first thing this morning and driving Sarah to the subway, which was a good idea since I've had zero interest in going back out into the world since I got back home. At least that very small pressure was removed.

My Nature Bright 10,000-lux lamp
Many of you reading this post have known me long enough to realize that complaining about winter weather is very unusual for me. I love snow. I prefer cold days to hot. Last February when Toronto broke records for consecutive days of frigid temperatures, I was in my glory because it was sunny, sunny, sunny all the time. It was just about the easiest February I have ever had. I far prefer weather I can anticipate, but especially if it comes with brilliant sunshine. I have a light therapy lamp which I make use of regularly and it is a huge help with my Seasonal Affective Disorder. I am supposed to use it for 30 minutes every day; I realized back in January that I hadn't been doing so and I really noticed a difference once I got back on track. If you are in the same situation as me, I can't recommend highly enough that you go out and get one of these lamps for yourself. If you click on the photo on the right, it will take you to the page for this item.

It's not all been about the weather for me, of course. There have been a trilogy of court cases in the past couple of months that have come to very disappointing conclusions. There is the ongoing debacle of the GOP race in the States, impossible to escape even in Canada. There was the sudden re-insertion of the Ford family in the daily news cycle. There was the struggle to find an accommodation with the Zoo that would allow me to Volunteer through the winter months. There has been an ongoing trial with an amphetamine to see if it will help combat my lifelong ADHD. All of these have been, of course, major factors in the tough slogging I've found this year so far. But the weather yo-yo has been far and away the biggest culprit, borne out by the fact that so many others I know are finding this to be a very difficult year and virtually all of them have faced none of the other things I mentioned in this paragraph.


Even after having written all of that – which I hope helped to shed some sort of light on my own situation – I want to make this clear: this post, cathartic as it may be, was not created for me. I hope those of you who are struggling right now and have been following my own amazing progress with my depression and anxiety will read this and understand that it's not a perfect recovery. That there are going to be struggles that will make you wonder if you're slipping back into despair.

You're not.

If you are feeling out of sorts right now and you have no real mitigating factor you can pin it on – illness, family woes, job loss, etc. – don't assume the worst. Consider outside factors that might not be on your radar, Think about when you had your worst days this year and see if you can remember (or look up) what the weather was doing those days.

It's been easy for me to post about all of my obvious successes over the past 24 months. Those are fun to read about and even more fun to write about. But I also consider today a "success", ironically. I am struggling. Scuffling hard. And I have felt more than once like going to bed, pulling the covers over my head, and sleeping this day away. I've felt like pouring myself a tumbler full of whisky and getting lost in it. I've felt like throwing up my hands and allowing the hopelessness and despair to wash over me. But I've battled through it, because I am very much aware that that is precisely what depression wants you to do. It is a liar and a bastard. And it's a tenacious opponent. And struggling is still one hell of a lot better than not struggling, which I have spent several years doing. Or not doing, I suppose. If you're feeling the same way: keep at it. Remember to breathe, Find some light and sit in it. Read more posts like this one. Write a post like this one, even if you show it to nobody. And if you can't do any of those things, please remember this:

It's not your fault.

Friday, April 1, 2016

2016 Connecting with Animals Calendar – April Story

Jupiter (L) and Venus during an enrichment session

Dora. Or maybe Vera. Hmm. 
One of the biomes at the Toronto Zoo is the "Tundra". The path through it – known as the "Tundra Trek" – is probably about a kilometre or so long as it meanders past animals of the far north of our country and offers insights into the lodgings and medicines and overall lifestyles of the hardy aboriginals (the Inuit) who co-inhabit this harsh habitat with those animals; It's quite a nice little stroll even now, but it has recently become sadly quite lacking in quantity (if not quality) of the animals on display. As you begin the "Trek" counter-clockwise from next to the Tundra zip line ride, you first encounter the domain of the Arctic wolves. For the better part of 15 years this area was populated by a rather large pack; as age took its toll they began to die off until there was one solitary male left named Loki. At that time, Loki was "retired" down to the Canadian Domain and we brought up a young triumverate of Chinook (male) and Dora and Vera (females who, I believe, are sisters) in the hopes that they will breed and begin their own large pack. For now there are just the three, but they are quite spry and lively and really very beautiful.

Juno showing a stick what's what
At the next stop on your tour you will find what is easily the signature animal of the tundra: the polar bear. At the moment the huge enclosure houses four bears: Aurora and Nikita, twin sisters who came to the Zoo as orphans 15 years ago; Inukshuk, who also arrived as an orphan but two years after the girls; and Juno, the newest creation of the Inukshuk-Aurora pairing, who was born on November 11 of last year (hence her name). Juno has two full brothers – Hudson and Humphrey – who are now living it up in a gorgeous exhibit called "The Journey to Churchill" at the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Juno is the first female polar bear cub at the Toronto Zoo since her mom and aunt arrived in early 2001. She is every bit as full of life as her two older siblings and, after a slow start, has nearly caught up to them in size and agility. She's pretty adorable, all in all.

But from there the pickings become rather slim.We have one snowy owl who has been on his own for quite some time now. There is one caribou left from the herd that was formerly split up to populate both the Tundra and Eurasia walkthroughs. There is nothing where the snow geese used to be and the geese themselves have been moved to a location farther along the trail. They now inhabit the last exhibit before you reach the end. The exhibit that used to display the Arctic foxes. Because we have none left, at the moment. And that makes me quite sad.

When I first started at the Zoo there were two Arctic foxes, one male and one female. The male (pictured here) was Cody; I don't recall the female's name but she wasn't around for long after I came on board. Some time in late 2013, we acquired two very young females to be companions for Cody, but he had already begun a steep decline himself and passed away that winter. The girls – Jupiter and Venus – occupied the exhibit together for a while after that, but you might notice something a bit "off" about the photo at the top of this page. I took that shot in late July of 2014 when both girls should have been the cookie-brown that Jupiter is displaying; for some reason, Venus never molted to the point where she fully changed colour that spring. Arctic foxes are not at the top of their food chain, so they need to rely somewhat on camouflage for protection against predators. In the winter they are the whitest white you will ever see, matching the snow-covered environment around them. When the snow melts in the brief Arctic summer, the foxes change to a brown-and-white combination (heavy on the brown) to blend in with the sedge and shrub coverage of the landscape. Wolves don't need to use this trick, so they just shed their thick winter coat but remain white all year round. So by the thickest heat of a Toronto summer, both Venus and Jupiter should have had very little white fur remaining. The fact that Venus still had most of hers was cause for concern. However, it makes for a pretty incredible (and rare) photo: two Arctic foxes, side-by-side, coloured completely differently from each other. That's the main reason I chose this photo for the 2016 calendar, even though neither girl is still with us. Something is amiss in that exhibit, it seems, and I can't get a clear answer as to what that is. It's possible it hasn't even been figured out yet. One thing seems certain, though: it's doubtful we'll see any more of this adorable species on our Tundra Trek until we can be sure they'll not suffer the same fate as the last three (at least).

The day I captured the image of Jupiter and Venus and that red ball was during "Zookeeper Week" and the foxes were receiving a special enrichment session that particular day. The ball was full of crickets! There were also several of the chirping bugs scattered about the tall grass of the exhibit and I managed to take some other really cute photos of the girls. Here is the "Bonus Material" for April. I hope you enjoy it!!

S-T-R-E-E-E-E-T-C-H!! Venus is awake!

Jupiter does a target session

Venus hears a cricket....

....and POUNCES!!

Listening for more snacks

Venus attentively watching her keeper leave

I hope that, in the near future, the Tundra Trek becomes a fulfilling and worthwhile walk again. When it was full of life – wolves, bears, owls, caribous, geese, foxes – it was just about my favourite place to hang out in the whole Zoo. In the meantime, I am exceedingly grateful I happened to be there with friends on the day these two gorgeous creatures got some special treats. I will always treasure these photos. 

Tune in again next month for some Fun with Flightless Feathered Friends! 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

2016 Connecting with Animals Calendar – March Story

Er Shun in her "Mona Lisa" pose

Last month I posted some "bonus material" of the white lion cubs that were born last fall. This set off quite a "Baby Boom" at the Toronto Zoo and the next to appear were two tiny but adorable giant panda cubs, born in the early morning hours of October 13, 2015, to the beautiful 8-year-old Er Shun, this month's "featured animal", It's especially good timing that I chose March as her month because those same bundles of cute – the first ever born in Canada – will make their official public debut on March 12th. Of course, by then they will already have been viewed in their exhibit by Zoo staff, volunteers, members, friends of members, and anyone watching one of presumably several dinner-hour newscasts on March 7th, the day the media and "VIPs" get to see them. This is known in the biz as a "soft open" (and all of those other viewings will take place in March as well). But "officially"? March 12th, the first Saturday of March Break here in Toronto. And now, about this photo above....

Da Mao out for a stroll in the snow
I try very hard (and for the most part have succeeded) not to include any fencing or wires or such distracting items of "containment" in my calendar photos. This photo (left) of Da Mao which I took a couple of years ago is a good example. It's not always easy and in some cases requires some adjustment in "post-production", but in the case of March's photo I thought the shot was so strong in and of itself that the fence behind Er Shun's exhibit just sort of fades into the background. And it's easily the best shot I have ever taken of her, in my opinion. I took several shots of her on this January afternoon, a day warm enough that she chose to spend time outside in her "front yard" rather than stay inside her day room. As is the norm for both of our giant pandas, in most of the pictures she is eating or selecting her food, because pandas have to eat for about 14-16 hours a day just to sustain basic bodily functions (and they sleep for the other 8-10 hours). Panda bears have a diet which consists of bamboo virtually exclusively; however, they lack the proper herbivore's digestive system to extract the maximum nutrition and energy from their food. They have adapted in many ways to this diet, but they still must eat or forage for nearly every waking hour of their lives. They also poop up to 40 times a day, a fact which causes much amusement to pretty much every school group I have ever led through the Panda Interpretive Centre.

So it's very rare for me to capture an image of them in which they are looking directly at the camera. It's rarer still for Er Shun to do this while sitting outside on her wooden climbing apparatus, in full view of the wonderful picture window that the Zoo installed a few months after their arrival, replacing the screen that made it exceptionally difficult to take a clear, crisp photo of this beautiful lady. And when you take all of that rarity into consideration and mix it with an imitation of La Gioconda's enigmatic little grin, get the image you see above. I am exceptionally pleased with this shot!

Here are a couple of other "finalists" for the honour of "Requisite Panda Photo" in this year's calendar:

Er Shun, looking like a Ken Do warrior

Da Mao happily snoozing in his beloved snow

Another eye-contact shot of Er Shun; this time she's eating!

Now. About those cubs.....

Day 1: the boy is on the left, girl on the right

Week 6: "twin-swapping", one cub with mom at a time

Week 16: Play time!

These photos (and many, many others) can be found on the Toronto Zoo's website. There are videos there, too, including this one, narrated by Maria Franke, which is currently being shown in the Panda Interpretive Centre:

As I write this, in late February, there is still a naming contest going on...but it will be over by the time this posts. Sometime in March we will learn which names were chosen. And then we'll all finally get to see them live and in person. Which will be pretty awesome, I'm not going to lie to you, but...I'm waiting for my first glimpse of our brand-new baby Indian rhino boy.

But then, if you've been following this blog, you already knew all about that.... :)

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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