Wednesday, August 15, 2001

Zoo reproductive expert makes breeding breakthrough

Researchers await birth of 1st Sumatran rhino in captivity

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Terri Roth enters a barn at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden and greets Emi, a Sumatran rhinoceros that might represent the best hope for her species' survival.

        “Hi, girl,” says Dr. Roth, director of the zoo's Center for Research of Endangered Wildlife. “Whatcha doin'?” Emi moves closer, and the 1,750-pound rhino and the slender scientist take a good look at each other.

[photo] Dr. Terri Roth keeps watch over Emi, a Sumatran rhino.
(Gary Landers photo)
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        “She's a really mellow animal,” Dr. Roth says, reaching into the enclosure to stroke the 11-year-old rhino's muzzle. “That's why we think she might be a good mom.”

        Almost 15 months into her sixth pregnancy, Emi is perhaps a month away from giving birth and making history. Not since 1889 in Calcutta has a Sumatran rhino been bred and born in captivity. Emi's previous five pregnancies ended with miscarriages.

        For Dr. Roth, Emi is the biggest challenge in a career devoted to saving endangered wildlife. And Sumatran rhinos are among the world's most endangered animals. Fewer than 300 remain, mostly in Indonesia and Malaysia.

        Since arriving in Cincinnati almost five years ago, the 37-year-old native Californian has made the Sumatran rhino project a priority. Progress has been slower than she would like, and she's had to rebound from a series of crushing disappointments. But Emi offers hope.

        “If this birth succeeds,” says Tom Foose, program director of the nonprofit International Rhino Foundation, “we've passed a very important threshold. We're already attempting to apply the methods that have been used at Cincinnati to some of the other facilities (breeding) the species.

        “We really are observing the twilight of what has been a very important family of mammals on the planet,” Dr. Foose says, noting that rhinos have been around for 50 million years. “Anything that will prevent or postpone the extinction of such a vulnerable species is, I think, an epochal event.”

[photo] Dr. Roth and her husband, Bill Swanson at their farm in California, Ky.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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        Dr. Foose is the architect of the captive-breeding program that brought Sumatran rhinos to this country. He says Dr. Roth “has redeemed, to a great extent, a program that was really languishing.” Her work has “revolutionized how we're managing and approaching the reproduction of the species. I certainly consider Terri to be the leading expert.”

Cincinnati held opportunity

        Such wasn't the case when Dr. Roth arrived in Cincinnati in October 1996 from the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where she focused mainly on snow leopards, cheetahs and scimitar-horned oryx. She had a grant to do rhino research here but had never worked with Sumatrans.

        Cincinnati, however, had the only three Sumatran rhinos in this country, so it made sense to include them in her research. The zoo also had a director, Ed Maruska, who was keenly interested in the animals.

        In the mid-1980s, with Sumatran rhino populations declining rapidly in Southeast Asia, the Cincinnati Zoo joined a multinational effort to capture and breed the animals. Dr. Foose, Mr. Maruska and others thought captive breeding would serve as insurance against disappearing habitats and poachers who kill the rhinos for their horns, which some cultures believe have medicinal value.

        In all, 40 Sumatran rhinos were removed from rain forests and brought to wildlife sanctuaries and zoos. But breeding the animals in captivity turned out to be much more difficult than anyone expected.

    A look at the pregnancy history of Emi, the Cincinnati Zoo's 11-year-old Sumatran rhinoceros.
    First pregnancy: Sept. 18, 1997. Loss confirmed on day 42.
    Second pregnancy: Began March 24, 1998. Loss confirmed on day 90.
    Third pregnancy: Began Aug. 12, 1998. Loss about day 30.
    Fourth pregnancy: Began June 26, 1999. Loss within 30 days.
    Fifth pregnancy: Began Nov. 19, 1999. Lost between Dec. 31 and Jan. 31, 2000.
    Sixth pregnancy: Began May 26, 2000. Approaching 15th month of pregnancy.
    Some Cincinnati Zoo breeding firsts
    1963: First caracal (a wildcat) born in the Western Hemisphere.
    1964: First crowned guenon monkey born in captivity.
    1969: First sand cat birth in captivity.
    1970: First yellow-headed vulture hatched in captivity.
    1974: First pampas cat birth in captivity.
    1977: First captive breeding of royal goliath beetles.
    1978: First successful hatching of smooth-fronted caimans in captivity.
    1980: First aardvark twin birth in captivity.
    1983: World's first non-surgical embryo transfer resulted in birth of an eland antelope.
    World's first successful artificial insemination of a Persian leopard.
    1984: World's first successful birth of a bongo calf to a surrogate eland mother.
    1986: First captive birth of rusty spotted cats in North America.
    1988: First brown-hooded kingfisher hatched in captivity.
    First white-breasted kingfisher hatched in Western Hemisphere.
    1989: First banded linsang born in captivity in United States.
    First cat born from inter-species embryo transfer and the first cat born from in vitro fertilization (Indian desert cat born to a domestic cat surrogate).
    1994: Eighteen Komodo dragon eggs hatch, most ever at one time in captivity.
    World's first birth of a domestic kitten resulting from sub-zonal sperm injection.
    1995: World's first birth of domestic kittens resulting from intracytoplasmic sperm injection.
    World's first “test tube” gorilla birth.
    1996: World's first captive birth of the Panay cloudrat.
    1998: First elephant conceived and born in Ohio since the days of the woolly mammoth.
    2000: Birth of the world's first ocelot kitten produced by embryo transfer; this was also the first endangered cat produced by transfer of frozen-thawed embryos.
        Zoos understood little about the behavior of Sumatran rhinos, which are solitary by nature. Males and females come together only when they're ready to breed. When is that? Nobody knew.

        Cincinnati had had great success breeding black rhinos. But when the zoo tried to mate Sumatran rhinos, “There would be terrible fighting,” says Mr. Maruska, who retired Dec. 31. “The animals would injure each other.” Breeding had to be halted while the rhinos healed.

        What's more, little was known about the care and feeding of the animals. In all, 25 of the 40 captive Sumatran rhinos have died. The 1992 death of Mahatu, a female at the Cincinnati Zoo, was a “devastating blow,” Mr. Maruska says.

        By 1995, when Emi arrived in Cincinnati from the Los Angeles Zoo, no zoo or wildlife sanctuary in the captive-breeding program had produced a single Sumatran rhino calf. Terri Roth joined CREW a year later.

        “The idea was, this would be the last all-out effort to breed these animals in the United States,” Dr. Roth says.

Growing love of animals

        She is sitting in her CREW office where a plush toy rhino rests atop a computer. A photo by a window shows “the happy little couple” — Emi and her mate, Ipuh — taken while the rhinos were being introduced in 1997.

        “Cute” might not be the word most people use to describe a Sumatran rhino, a bulky, hairy-bodied creature with two horns. But Dr. Roth insists Emi “is cute in a funny sort of way, not a cuddly sort of way.”

        Then again, Dr. Roth always has loved all creatures. Growing up, she never played with Barbie dolls. Only stuffed animals.

        Real animals were even more fun, as she discovered when her family moved onto 1 1/2 acres near Pleasanton, Calif., 40 miles east of San Francisco. Summer afternoons were spent looking for toads, snakes and the like. “The rule was, I could bring them home ... but within a day or two I had to release them.”

        She also raised sheep through 4-H, and she shared with two older sisters a horse, rabbits, parakeets, “anything we could talk our parents into.”

    Born: Feb. 20, 1964, in San Diego.
    Occupation: Director, Center for Research of Endangered Wildlife, Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.
    Family: Married to Bill Swanson, who heads CREW's animal conservation division.
    Home: California, Ky.
    Education: Bachelor's (1986) and master's (1988) in animal science, University of California, Davis. Doctorate (1991) in animal reproductive physiology, Louisiana State University.
    Current project: Preparing for Emi, the zoo's pregnant Sumatran rhino, to give birth. It will be the first Sumatran rhino bred and born in captivity in 112 years.
    Most proud of: “Solving the mystery of reproduction in the Sumatran rhino.”
        She told her parents she wanted to grow up to ride race horses or work in a zoo. “They immediately told me I was too big to be a jockey.”

        She might have been a veterinarian but disliked the idea of surgery. She considered genetics but couldn't stand all the number crunching. At the University of California,Davis, she took an animal reproductive physiology class and loved it. Her path was set.

        After earning her doctorate in three years from Louisiana State University, she spent five years at the National Zoo. When CREW's longtime director, Dr. Betsy Dresser, left to join the Audubon Institute, Dr. Roth got the job.

Understanding rhinos

        Cincinnati had two female Sumatran rhinos and one male, Ipuh. Dr. Roth soon determined the ovaries of the older female, Rapunzel, were inactive. She has since been sent to the Bronx Zoo. It made sense to focus on Emi.

        Emi, of course, had rebuffed Ipuh in the past, which had led to fierce fighting. So Dr. Roth set about trying to track Emi's reproductive cycle, using ultrasound. If she could determine when Emi was coming into estrus, or heat, she would know within a day or two the right time to introduce her to the male.

        But after six months, Emi's reproductive cycle remained a mystery. Dr. Roth and zoo keepers then decided to introduce Emi and Ipuh daily for short periods. Volunteers kept a close watch that summer of 1997 so the rhinos could be separated quickly if fighting broke out.

        Summer, it turned out, had built-in advantages. On hot days, Ipuh preferred cooling off in his pool rather than fighting with Emi. One day, though, he started following her. A peaceful breeding session followed.

        Two days later, through ultrasound, Dr. Roth saw Emi ovulate for the first time. That would lead the scientist to a stunning discovery: Emi was an “induced ovulator,” meaning eggs were released from the ovary only after sex with a male. In all other rhino species — indeed, most hoof stock — ovulation doesn't depend on breeding.

        Dr. Roth and the keepers continued putting the animals together, and they bred again 21 days later. “So we said, OK, she had a 21-day cycle,” Dr. Roth says.

        Emi became pregnant the second time she and Ipuh mated, in fall 1997. Headlines trumpeted the news. Mr. Maruska called it the “most significant breeding of any large mammal in our century.”

Emi's early miscarriages

        “We were feeling pretty good,” Dr. Roth says. Ultrasound tests showed the embryo developing. A heartbeat was detected. “We foolishly thought we were home free.”

        But when Dr. Roth ran an ultrasound at 42 days, “I didn't see anything. I said, maybe I missed something, let's come back tomorrow.” But the result was the same.

        Although disappointed, Dr. Roth remained upbeat. She knew early pregnancy loss in horses — a relative of the rhino — isn't unusual. She also knew Emi was producing eggs and Ipuh was fertile.

        In spring 1998, Emi became pregnant again. This time, Dr. Roth held off on making a public announcement until after a crucial point: implantation of the embryo in the uterus.

        An ultrasound at 79 days looked perfect. “You could see the baby,” Dr. Roth says. “You could see it move its legs; it had a heartbeat.”

        The zoo announced the pregnancy. More headlines. But when Dr. Roth checked at 90 days, it was gone.

        “That was really disappointing,” she says.

        Dr. Roth always had expected her biggest challenge would be getting Emi pregnant. But now, sustaining the pregnancy had become her major concern.

        Colleagues say she handled the adversity well.

        “There was always that attitude of just moving on and coping with the next challenge. Terri was always very optimistic,” says Justine O'Brien, who held a postdoctoral fellowship at CREW in 1997-98. She's now a research fellow at the University of Syndey.

        Over the next two years, the frustrating pattern of pregnancy loss repeated itself. Dr. Roth began having trouble sleeping.

        “The pressure didn't come so much from within this institution,” she says, “but it came more from an international perspective. We had given people reason to hope when we had a pregnancy, and then the letdowns ...”

        Three more times Emi became pregnant. She lost each one.

        “Typically if an animal's going to lose a pregnancy, you will see something in the uterus that will indicate a slight infection,” Dr. Roth says. “I never saw that with her. I just couldn't explain it.”

        Keepers reported nothing unusual, either.

        Unlike the first two pregnancies, numbers three, four and five were not announced to the public.

        Meanwhile, Dr. Roth says, “We were plowing through all kinds of ideas. It's been hard to figure out the diet in these animals, and so we began thinking nutrition. We started running blood work, looking at minerals, vitamins, anything.”

Setbacks were challenge

        After the fifth miscarriage, in early 2000, if anybody had a right to feel discouraged it was Dr. Roth.

        “Probably more so than anybody I know, I've never really seen her get depressed,” says Bill Swanson, who heads CREW's animal conservation division and specializes in cat reproduction.

        Dr. Swanson, who is also a veterinarian, knows Dr. Roth better than anyone. They've been married two years, and have been together for 12. They met in graduate school at Louisiana State.

        He describes his wife as “extremely driven and focused.” That applies to them both. What little free time they have usually is spent on their 80-acre California, Ky., farm, which is home to a horse, three cats, two dogs, a retired zoo camel and a coatimundi, a raccoon-like animal that was abandoned by its former owner. They also raise beef cattle.

        The setbacks involving Emi were frustrating, but Dr. Roth took them as a challenge.

        “What people read about are the success stories,” she says. “But scientists fail more than succeed. You have a hypothesis, you test it, it's wrong. You start over with a new hypothesis.”

International brainstorm

        And so it was with Emi.

        In February 1999 and March 2000, Dr. Roth attended workshops in Southeast Asia sponsored by the International Rhino Foundation. Three dozen experts from around the globe brainstormed reasons why Emi couldn't sustain a pregnancy. One possibility: a hormone deficiency.

        Dr. Roth knew levels of the hormone progesterone rose in Emi when she was pregnant. But were those levels high enough? No one knew what was normal in a pregnant Sumatran rhino.

        Dr. Roth and workshop participants agreed a hormone supplement was worth a try. The supplements began when Emi became pregnant for the sixth time in May 2000.

        Fifteen months later, it looks like a wise decision, although Dr. Roth can't say for certain that the supplements are the reason the pregnancy has been sustained.

        Dr. Roth projects a mid-September due date, but the calf could arrive weeks earlier or later.

        A successful birth “will be a tremendous benefit to the Cincinnati Zoo and enhance their reputation and probably the support they receive,” says Dr. Foose, of the International Rhino Foundation.

        Asked what she'll do after Emi delivers, Dr. Roth jokes: “I'll probably go into postpartum depression.”

        In reality, there still will be much work to do. For as she notes, “You can't save a species with just one pair of animals.”

        Certainly she'll stay in touch with managed breeding centers in Southeast Asia, which are applying the methods pioneered in Cincinnati: hormone analysis, ultrasound analysis and trial introductions of animals.

        Even now, Cincinnati zoo keeper Steve Romo is at work at Sungai Dusun Wildlife Reserve in Peninsula Malaysia. Several Sumatran rhinos have been mating regularly there, but no pregnancies have been reported.

        Such work is becoming a bigger part of the mission of zoos. If wildlife continues to disappear, Dr. Roth notes, zoos one day won't have anything left to display.

The conservation message

        Educating the public is also part of that mission, she says.

        When Emi became pregnant a sixth time, Mr. Maruska asked Dr. Roth when she would be comfortable making a public announcement. After so many disappointments, the safe approach might have been waiting until the calf was born.

        But this isn't about producing just one live animal, Dr. Roth says. “The important thing is to get the word out about the Sumatran rhino, and its endangered status, and about conservation efforts to save it. And so we thought, let's take advantage of this opportunity.”

        The zoo announced the pregnancy in January, when Emi was eight months along. Even now, with Emi looking good a month before her due date, Dr. Roth takes nothing for granted.

        “Hopefully when it's over, I'll be meeting the press with a smile on my face,” she says. “But I may not. That's the way it is. We have to be ready to go either way.”


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