Helen Wilson is doing her part for the survival of the rare white rhinoceros: standing for hours on end at the Baltimore Zoo and looking for things that would force most folks to avert their eyes. She jots down any signs that the zoo's two rhinos are about to mate, and the signals aren't pretty.
In this case, a come-hither look doesn't involve batted eyelashes. A female rhino in the mood will curl her tail out of the way and back into the male. A randy male will sniff his potential mate's dung, then do the same to her backside.
Not exactly romantic, but welcome moves at the zoo in the city's Druid Hill Park, where staff say a union between 32-year-old Daisy and 7-year-old Stubby would make Daisy one of the oldest females of the threatened species ever to breed in captivity. So volunteers such as Wilson have dutifully kept watch almost daily since spring, rooting for a May-December romance that keepers say could be foiled by a foster mother-son bond.
"It's quite an honor to be able to do something like this," said Wilson, 56, jotting notes on a clipboard as Stubby took a few whiffs at Daisy's back end Saturday morning.
A retired Social Security management analyst, Wilson had no trouble translating the birds and the bees into bureaucratese. She noted the time and made a check mark in a box marked "A/G investigation," which, according to a glossary provided to volunteers, stands for "sniff the anogenital region of the other animal."
Wilson and others who offered to pitch in at the zoo were startled by some of the coarse particulars of pitching rhino woo.
"I know my mouth dropped open," Wilson said, recalling her reaction when keepers presented the glossary at a training session.
Since then, however, Wilson has become comfortably conversant in matters of rhino love.
The two rhinos are close, but in a way that may work against putting Daisy in the family way. Daisy, who came to the zoo in 1992, took Stubby under her wing when he arrived in 1996.
"He came in as a young male just separated from his mother, and he was pretty upset," said Brad Hange, senior mammal keeper. The keepers placed the two together to try to calm Stubby.
"They established a real strong relationship," Hange said. "My concern is, was it potentially almost a mother-son relationship?" A mother-son bond without any Oedipal overtones - at least not until about a year ago. That's when, for the first time, Stubby bested Daisy in one of their playful sparring matches. After that, he started displaying bullish behavior. That's when zoo officials decided they should start monitoring the rhinos' behavior, an effort that began in earnest last spring. So far, there is no evidence that the pair has mated.
If the pair breeds, it would be important to the species because Daisy was born in the wild, probably in South Africa. That would bring fresh genes into the pool of animals born in captivity. Stubby was born at a zoo in Knoxville, Tenn.
White rhinos number about 10,000 today, but were once hunted nearly to extinction, in part because in many Asian cultures the horn is supposed to have value as an aphrodisiac. Noting that the horn is made of the same material as human fingernails, keepers aren't betting on that to turn Daisy and Stubby on. Inside the animals' sleeping quarters, they've posted a photograph of a male rhino mounting a female.
"I suggested candles and soft music," Wilson said, "but I don't think they've done that."
Female rhinos are capable of reproducing well into their 30s, but it would be unusual for one that has never mated to start at that age, keepers said. A test conducted on Daisy's dung last year revealed that she is still producing hormones required for breeding. The oldest female known to breed in captivity was 39, said Andrea Keller, a zoo spokeswoman.
As far as anyone knows, Daisy has never mated. She did not get along with Leroy, a rhino in his late 30s that had to be sent away a few years ago to a ranch in Texas. So it isn't just a matter of Daisy getting her groove back with a younger male. She may never have grooved in the first place.
But if she starts, chances are a volunteer will be there to see it.
At 4,300 pounds apiece, Daisy and Stubby are among the most inactive animals at the zoo. They nap, graze and nap some more. But Wilson said she will gladly keep watch over the lumbering lumps of gray, hoping she'll be the lucky one who sees them mate.
"I've never been bored with it," she said. "Everyone wants to be the volunteer who is there observing some active behavior."