Around the Mall & Beyond

Since her arrival in September, baby Chitwan has charmed visitors and curators alike. This is the first birth of a rhino at the National Zoo since 1974

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She's cute, all right. I mean, you want to pick her up and dandle her. I wasn't prepared for that.

She is an exact miniature of her mom, down to the last knob and pimple. They look like they're wearing mother-and-daughter outfits.

Except for the horn.

Baby Chitwan weighed 138 pounds when she was born September 18 at 3:55 a.m. She gained 51 pounds in the next 11 days, and then the scale broke. But that happens with rhinoceroses. Her mother, Mechi, weighs 3,600 pounds.

Chitwan, named for the Royal Chitwan Park in Nepal, where her mother came from, is about the most popular resident at the National Zoo in Washington. For the first few weekends after she was born, the lines stretched out the door of the Elephant House, where she lives with other rhinos, elephants, hippos, giraffes and potbellied pigs.

"This birth is pretty rare," says John Lehnhardt, assistant curator for large mammals. "In the last 2 1/2 years in North America there have been only ten births of this species, and there are only 45 of them on this continent. For us, this is the first successful birth since 1974."

Right now Mechi is striding about, with the baby close at her heels. This is sweet, but it is also a basic survival technique, for these rhinos come from a land where the wild grasses can grow 25 feet tall, and a baby rhino, or a baby anything, or you or I for that matter, could get lost in a minute.

Mechi is nervous. She is extremely protective, especially right now. She sees humans she doesn't know hanging around and staring at her. She doesn't like the look of that tape recorder, either, so she makes a threatening move toward the bars. We back away.

"Of course, for the vets it's a standard problem. They hate the vets, with their needles and all," says Morna Holden, who has been caring for Mechi and the other female rhino, Kali, ever since they arrived here nine years ago as babies themselves.

"They recognize the keepers who work with them all the time by their light-colored shirts.


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