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MSU helps protect first-time rhino mom during pregnancy

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Photo Courtesy Kaiti Chritz, Potter Park Zoo.

A baby rhino was successfully delivered on December 24, 2019, thanks to the veterinary teams and staff at Michigan State University (MSU)’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Potter Park Zoo.

According to MSU, making sure Doppsee and her calf are healthy is of the utmost importance, especially to increase the likelihood of preserving the black rhino species by spreading their genetics.

Throughout her pregnancy, Doppsee was closely monitored by Dr. Ronan Eustace, the director of Animal Health for Potter Park Zoo and adjunct professor at the College, and visiting college veterinarians and veterinary medical students.

The veterinary department at Potter Park Zoo has a long history of collaboration with veterinary students and residents from MSU, which allows them to learn about zoo medicine.

Dr. Julie Strachota, a clinical instructor for the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences and a theriogenology resident at MSU, has been able to learn what it’s like to be an obstetrician-gynecologist (OBGYN) for Doppsee, under the guidance and support of Dr. Eustace and Dr. Carla Carleton, professor emeritus of the College.

“Being a part of the veterinary team that ultrasounds Doppsee has allowed us to compare what we see with her pregnancy to more common species, like equids. For me, I’ve been able to show students, Zoo staff, and visitors what we see on the ultrasound,” said Dr. Strachota.

“For the keepers, their excitement with this pregnancy beams from their eyes. They have such a wonderful, strong bond with Doppsee that I enjoy seeing every time I visit her.”

With assistance from zookeepers, Dr. Eustace and Dr. Strachota have been able to conduct transabdominal and transrectal ultrasounds on Doppsee throughout her pregnancy.

“Earlier in her pregnancy, we were only able to see she was pregnant via a transrectal approach because her uterus wasn’t large enough to see from her flank region. Now, as we are in the last weeks of her pregnancy, we can see the fetus very clearly through a transabdominal ultrasound,” said Dr. Strachota.

The team used positive reinforcement—in the form food—to train Doppsee for abdominal and rectal ultrasounds, blood draws, and exams. This way Doppsee gets to choose whether she wants to participate in every step of the process by voluntarily walking in or out of a chute. When they perform an ultrasound on Doppsee, her veterinary healthcare team looks for fetal movement and position, fetal heart rate, and health of the amniotic fluid of the pregnancy.

“One of the things that I have learned about Doppsee’s pregnancy is how you can apply what you know from other species to her. Her placenta is like a horse’s, and what we are monitoring on ultrasound are the same things that we would be doing in a broodmare,” said Dr. Strachota.

Fortunately for MSU’s students, this isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last, that they’ll have the opportunity to gain hands-on experience with the animals at Potter Park Zoo.

“Collaborating with Potter Park Zoo is a wonderful educational experience for our veterinary students and faculty,” said Dr. Strachota.

“Dr. Eustace welcomes as many students as we can bring to work with the animals.”

Original story by Katheryn Sullivan.

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