About Author: Jonnie Capiro

Posts by Jonnie Capiro


Helping Rhino Mili: Part 3

Mili stretches her little legs.

Mili checks out the world outside of the protective boma.

Be sure to read Helping Rhino Mili: Part 2.

The time has flown by, and by mid-January, Mili is already one month old. She is about 230 pounds at this point, steadily gaining on average 3 pounds every day, just like a greater one-horned rhino calf should. We continued our dance of feeding her bottles in the morning and giving her back to Mom for more nursing. We watched her become bigger and stronger, and even felt the difference as she tried to play with us, not realizing that we weigh much less than she does at this point. She became interested in investigating not only the things that caught her attention, but everything she could reach with her tiny, prehensile lip! She cruised around the calf area searching for things to manipulate. She reached for my lunch bag one day, and that’s when it really sunk in that she is growing at an incredible rate.

I began feeding her tiny pieces of banana as a treat, to slowly acclimate her to more solid food. She gobbled it right up and followed me around with an open mouth, begging for more. I caved and gave her a few more pieces for free, but after that, banana would be reserved for conditioning sessions only. Our goal is to maintain this great relationship with her, because soon enough she will outweigh us by a few hundred pounds, and we have to be careful to keep safe. Just like with many Zoo animals, we use positive reinforcement operant conditioning to help maintain this relationship. It is a simple process where we pair a desired behavior with a positive experience, such as being scratched behind the ear or being offered a favorite treat. In this case, an important behavior is for Mili to continue to allow us to touch her ears and legs. In the future, if we ever need to get a blood sample from her, these are two of the ideal spots on rhinos to draw blood from.

Recently, in the warm weather, I’ve been able to sit on the roof of the boma and watch these two romp around the yard, with the occasional visit of a Caravan Safari truck that has been able to get close enough to give its riders a quick glimpse of Sundari and Mili. I overhear the caravan guide remind our guests that Mom and calf are still getting used to the yard and their surroundings. Then, a unanimous “awwwww” erupts from the guests. And I have to agree: she is pretty adorable!

Mili and Sundari will remain in the boma for another month or so and then get introduced to the rest of the herd. I’ll keep you posted!

Jonnie Capiro is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.


Helping Rhino Calf Mili, Part 2

Mili gets a mud bath from her keeper staff.

Mili gets a mud bath from her keeper staff.

Be sure to read Helping Rhino Calf Mili, Part 1.

Soon after the birth, the 24-hour watches stopped, but we still spent our entire workday observing and caring for this greater one-horned rhino duo. It was amazing to see just how quickly a rhino calf develops. After spending the entire first week with Mili after her birth, I was very much in tune with her behavior and could even see very subtle changes and developments.

Initially, her giant ears stayed down close to her head, and she moved quite slowly, still getting used to those brand-new legs. Her main goals in life, as were mother Sundari’s, were to eat and sleep. And with the occasional supplemental bottle, that’s about all she did. Mili would enter the calf area to be weighed every morning while Mom munched away on a snack. Mili still had somewhat uncoordinated movements, stepping the 4 inches up onto the scale, bumping into keepers on her way back down, and just kind of moving slowly everywhere she went.

One day, during the second week of observations, I noticed that Mili was starting to pay more attention to the things around her. Instead of her usual routine of following Mom around, she investigated items that caught her attention. She rubbed her face back and forth on top of some grain that Sundari had clumsily spilled on the ground, trying to figure out what these little, round pellets were. She became distracted by things in her room: an empty food tub, a branch of ficus that Sundari had not devoured yet, or a small scrap of hay. She was obviously more aware of her surroundings, thus more distracted when we tried to get her attention. We were no longer the most interesting thing in her world.

During week three, the 190-pound (86 kilograms) rhino ran around everywhere before skidding to a halt right in front of us, as if showing off her still-awkward legs. Her ears stuck straight up now and moved around searching for sounds, just like her mom’s ears. She was spending more time playing with Sundari, which was mostly Mili playing while Mom was trying to sleep. Also, her mode of moving around went from a slow walk to a run! Some mornings, she would have to get all this playing out of her system before she would drink her bottle. After about 10 minutes, she would surrender, open mouthed and out of breath from running, but ready to eat. Every week marked significant progress in her development.

Jonnie Capiro is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Follow Jonnie’s tweets from the field on the Safari Park’s Twitter feed.


Helping Rhino Calf Mili, Part 1

Mili is fed by Melodi Tayles, a lead keeper at the Safari Park.

Mili is fed by Melodi Tayles, a lead keeper at the Safari Park.

I sat in the dark, nestled in a bed of hay entering notes into the computer with only a lantern by my side. It was a cold night, and surprisingly, the fluffy hay bed was keeping me warm. Above the hum of the generator, I heard some stirring. The Safari Park’s newest greater one-horned rhino calf, Shomili (Bengali meaning “beauty and elegance”; Mili for short) was awake and searching around to nurse from first-time mom, Sundari. I peered through the room with my flashlight and saw her poking her face around Mom’s belly. “Come on,” I thought, “you guys can figure this out.” I patiently waited for the calf to latch on and nurse. I noted the time in our records. We were on round-the-clock watch for this little rhino and her mom to make sure they were bonding and nursing.

Rhinos are born in the wild without supervision or intervention all the time, of course, but this little rhino needed a little extra keeper care. We pay careful attention to even the smallest details in our animals. A very important part of the dam/calf bonding process is making sure the little one is getting enough milk. In this case, we just weren’t sure. Sundari seemed to be going through the motions of feeding her calf, but she didn’t seem to have as much udder development as we would expect and as we’ve seen from other rhino moms. Additionally, Mili was a little on the small side at birth, only 127 pounds, when the species’ average birth weight is 150 pounds. After much deliberation, brainstorming, and working together with the vets, we decided to offer Mili supplemental bottles, just to be on the safe side.

We began feeding her rhino calf-sized milk bottles a few times a day. Fortunately, Mili seemed to enjoy our attention, and Sundari approved of these interactions. How could we be so sure? For starters, Mili responded well to us by entering the rhino calf area, a space corralled by hay bales that she could access by walking under a bar that created a little “dog-door” just big enough for her to fit through. Here, we could get our hands on her, encourage her to walk onto the scale, as getting daily weights would be crucial to her development plan, and introduce her to the bottle.

Mili was very calm and inquisitive, which made this relationship develop smoothly. And, in this calf-only area, Mili could choose to leave us at any time and go right back to her mom. However, after just a few weeks, she was so friendly that we had to remind her to go back to Mom when playtime with us was over for the day! Whenever Mili visited with us, we gave Sundari plenty of treats to reinforce that she was doing an excellent job at being such a laid-back mom. The success of this project and relationship with Mili was mostly due to Sundari’s compliance and willingness to share her calf with us for a little while every day. What a cool mom!

Jonnie Capiro is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Giraffe Calf Introduction. Follow Jonnie’s tweets from the field on the Safari Park’s Twitter feed.


Giraffe Calf Introduction

Kizuwanda, with Kato at her side, gives Jonnie the once over.

I stretched up on my tiptoes to unlock a steel padlock and slid the pin holding the door shut over to the open position. Towering high above my head was one of my favorite giraffes, Kizuwanda. She was leaning over the boma wall, on alert, probably wondering what I was doing. “Ready?” I yelled to a fellow keeper, whom I couldn’t see but knew was inside the boma watching the giraffe while I unlocked the door. I heard a response and replied, “Okay, here we go!” I took one last look through a peephole and saw Kizuwanda staring at me, from a safe 10 feet (3 meters) away. I moved the pin, and with all my body weight, I pushed the heavy door open and quickly retreated to my truck. Most of our giraffes are pretty calm when keepers are on the ground near them, but Kizuwanda can be a little less trusting and was on high alert today: we were releasing her and her 4-week-old son, Kato, out into the field exhibit at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park to meet the herd for the first time.

I’m aware that I am fortunate enough to have one of the coolest jobs ever, and I get to see so many amazing things every day, but giraffe introductions are up there with one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had. Currently, we have a pretty big herd: nine males and seven females in the East Africa exhibit. They are quite social, so they are often found together in a big group, and it’s an amazing sight to see so many giraffes in one exhibit. Historically, we’ve had a successful giraffe breeding program, welcoming over 120 Uganda giraffe calves at the Safari Park!

Once the steel door was propped open, Kizuwanda didn’t waste any time and took off, galloping into the exhibit. I peered around the corner to see a deer-in-the headlights look on the face of a mini-giraffe confused by what he just witnessed. Moments later, instincts kicked in, and he was off, too, in a trot of awkward, gangly limbs, in desperate search of Mom. I got in the truck, maneuvered my way to the main part of the exhibit, and tried to catch up with the herd that was already racing off.

When a new calf joins the herd, it’s really exciting! The herd surrounds the newcomer, sniffs, investigates, and runs around the exhibit all together as if in some sort of victory lap. It’s really pretty amazing. Today was no different. Kato quickly got mixed up in a 17-foot-tall mass of spots, legs, necks, tails, and, of course, dust. They were all quite gentle with him but impatient to get their turn meeting the little one. This went on for about 20 minutes, interspersed with bouts of running, with Kato in the lead, probably just trying to get some space. Up until now, he’s only bonded with Mom and any giraffe heads that have peered over the maternity boma wall. I followed along in the truck until I was satisfied that this was a successful introduction. The giraffes had settled down, and the short burst of excitement was over.

Kizuwanda is back with her herd-mates, and Kato has been welcomed as the herd’s newest member. I feel confident that after this successful introduction, his place in the group will be assured.

Jonnie Capiro is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, A Creepy Night Watch. Follow Jonnie’s tweets from the field on the Safari Park’s Twitter feed.


A Creepy Night Watch

Tanaya peers over at scaredy-cat Jonnie.

I slowly descend the ladder one rung at a time, shifting my backpack around to protect my computer as I jump off onto the sandy ground. Bhopu is staring at me, surprised to see a keeper at dusk; we are usually scarce by the middle of the afternoon. I ignore his confusion and press on to get inside the boma. The sun is setting over the beautiful golden-brown hills while herds peacefully graze in configurations much different from their daytime routine. They seem out of place from what I am used to, but perhaps this is their nighttime routine, and I am rarely here to see it.

I scale the next ladder and quietly step inside. It is still quite light out, but the boma rooms are growing darker, and it is hard for me to make out the rhino without a flashlight. I set up my camp for the evening: clipboard full of notes from the last day’s watch, the portable computer to log this information, and my radio and phone. As I settle in for the evening, I hear a squeaking noise coming from the rafters. If I’ve learned anything from horror movies, it’s that I should most definitely investigate the source of the sound. Boy, is that a bad idea! I shine the light up at the wooden rafters and there, rocking back and forth, is a fuzzy little body hanging upside down. Great. I knew there were bats out here, but come on. I’ve only been here about five minutes, and I am already a little freaked out.

I hang up my lantern, and as it sways back and forth, I catch a glimpse of a fluttering winged shadow dancing around the back wall. I shiver. A filmmaker couldn’t write this anymore perfect! Again, I brush it off and turn my attention toward the pregnant rhino we are monitoring. This means that some of us take the night shift, which is actually pretty fun. I’ve had to do overnights many times throughout my career, but this is the first time that I’ve had uninvited company, or at least the first time that I’ve noticed the company—even creepier!

I try to ignore the rest of nature that comes alive at night and my own vivid imagination by working on documenting the notes we have taken so far. Every once in awhile, a bat does a very low fly-by, just above my head. I have to remind myself that they eat insects, not brown-haired zookeepers, but what if they run into me on the way to those tasty insects? I am especially amused by the irony that I work with 4,000-plus-pound animals that can, you know, not even notice if I am underfoot. But, as Tanaya munches her way through the hay pile in the barn, slurping, chewing, grinding, grunting, and making noises that I can only imagine the dinosaurs once made, I laugh at myself when I duck each time I hear the ominous sound of fluttering wings.

To top things off, every hour or so, the rest of the rhinos in the exhibit come “check in” with their friend in the boma. This sounds nice, doesn’t it? But in the middle of the night, these visits consist of a lot of sudden banging on bars, rubbing their thick skin along doors, and lots of aggressive vocalizations. Thanks to those big heads and giant nostrils, they emit loud, sharp chuffs of air and abrupt snorts that startle me almost every time. Sometimes, it is really quiet, and I only hear the sound of a 5,000-pound rhinoceros breathing heavily from outside the boma. It is so comical and weird at the same time! One of the cool things about the greater one-horned rhino is their impressive array of vocalizations: snorts, chuffs, squeaks, honks, grunts, and whistles. At night, though, it is a little intense. When I take a quick look outside, it’s pitch black, and all I can do is picture those giant bodies surrounding the boma while hatching a plan. This wouldn’t be at all intimidating if it was light outside. I work with them every day, and I can read them pretty well. Dim the lights, and it’s a completely different ballgame out here!

A sudden bang against the heavy metal door jolts me back to reality. I try to enjoy the rest of the night; it really is pretty cool to get the chance to observe them at night. They are so active! The time goes quickly and uneventfully, and I am able to get some work done while spending quality time with one of our coolest species.

A few more hours go by, and I see a pair of headlights searching their way around the service road. My replacement has arrived! It is time for me to pack up my things and take off for the night. I let my fellow keeper know about the observations I made during my shift and hand over the responsibility of keeping this rhino company until morning. I grab my belongings, step outside into the pitch black of the exhibit, and breathe a sigh of relief. I made it! I survived the night with one giant rhino and a bunch of harmless bats.

Jonnie Capiro is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Rhinos: Back to Normal. Follow Jonnie’s tweets from the field on the Safari Park’s Twitter feed.


Rhinos: Back to Normal

Tanaya and Sundari watch as Bhopu relaxes in a mud wallow on his first day back into the field exhibit.

I was hoping to write a short update about how we reintroduced the big guy, greater one-horned rhino Bhopu, back into the exhibit to meet up with rhino mom Alta and her calf, Charlees, and how everything went as expected and there was no drama. But as a zookeeper, I should know better: we can’t count on anything to go as expected when working with animals!

We had waited a few months to let Alta and Charlees scope out the exhibit on their own. Bhopu, who has been by himself in the boma yard since Charlee’s birth, is lovable, but honestly, does a rhino mom really need that hulking body following her around the exhibit while trying to bond with her little one and getting her accustomed to her new female herd-mates: Asha, Tanaya, Sundari, and Kaya? (See post, Where Are Those Rhinos?) Once they had the lay of the land and seemed comfortable, we decided it was time to bring Bhopu back into the mix. But, there’s really nothing gradual to this process. It’s as simple as opening the boma door and watching what happens. Using the rest of the herd to our advantage, we strategically chose a range of dates that offered a distraction to Bhopu that was too good to resist and would keep him occupied for a few days: we set him up on a date!

We monitor the girls’ estrous cycles pretty accurately by submitting weekly fecal samples to our Endocrine Lab for hormone and pregnancy analysis. We expect to see them cycle every four to six weeks (see Collecting Rhino Treasures: Poop!). We really only had one candidate to set up with Bhopu: Asha, the nine-year-old. We believed she would cycle sometime around the end of June, and these behaviors and signals would help make Bhopu’s transition a little easier for Charlees. Greater one-horned rhino estrous behaviors can range from subdued and subtle to very obvious and last from a few hours to a few days. If we missed this opportunity, we would have to wait another month or so. We waited and watched Asha like a hawk, listening closely for a whistle vocalization, a sign of agitation, or just that indescribable characteristic that keepers are just in tune with – looking to see if she seems different than her usual self.

As I drove around the exhibit one morning at the end of June, I noticed one of the female rhinos alone, walking the perimeter of the exhibit. Hmm. Even with binoculars, I couldn’t identify the isolated rhino, but the girls are almost always paired up: Alta and Charlees, Asha and her sister, Kaya, and Tanaya and her younger sister, Sundari. When one of these girls is alone, it can only mean one thing: she’s in estrus. Ordinarily, this occurrence wouldn’t be a big deal, but today we had a very small window of opportunity that we had to take advantage of immediately!

We gathered the troops, conversed via radios and cell phones to concoct a plan, and made sure we had extra vehicles available. First, we conferred to make sure we were all in agreement that this was the best opportunity and possibly the only sign of behavioral estrous that we might see. We all agreed and quickly met up in the exhibit.

With our trucks in position, we opened the heavy boma yard door, and Bhopu calmly exited. A little while went by, and Bhopu wasn’t picking up on any of Asha’s signals. Instead, he searched the exhibit and met up with each rhino. As he approached Alta, we were poised, 4-wheel drive engaged, ready to intervene any potential aggressive interactions. Alta, the super-protective mom that she is, roared at Bhopu and took off with her calf. Among the confusion, Alta and Charlees were separated from each other for a little while. We maneuvered our trucks around the very bumpy exhibit terrain, bouncing around while trying to reunite these two. Instinctively, Charlees tucked herself into the rocks way in the back of the field exhibit. Alta only searched the front of the exhibit! We had to try to get her to walk in the direction of Charlees, while timing it perfectly to encourage Charlees out of her hiding spot so Alta could spot her. This strategy took some effort on our part, but very soon they were reunited, and we all felt like we were in the clear.

That was a tough, but memorable, day. Alta is a great mom and continues to keep a careful watch over the little one. Charlees has had several subsequent interactions with Bhopu, and he’s been quite gentle with her, probably because Alta just gives him a look and a snort, and he respects her protectiveness. Charlees is really doing well on exhibit with the rest of the group. She readily approaches the feed truck and sometimes she even visits with the guests on the Caravan Safari Tours.

Jonnie Capiro is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Follow Jonnie’s tweets from the field on the Safari Park’s Twitter feed.


The Sitatunga: Elusive and Amazing

A sitatunga gives Jonnie a curious look.

I hopped out of the feed truck and hauled a 40-pound bag of grain over to the shallow feeder where several antelope waited patiently. I dumped the entire contents of the bag into the feeder for my audience and returned to the truck for a paper bag filled with small, red folivore, or leaf-eater, biscuits. The crinkly sound from rummaging through this paper bag is an audio cue to most of the hoofed animals in the field exhibits at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. In response to this distinct sound, rounded ears perked up and necks stretched out toward me in anticipation. I threw a few biscuits on the ground and watched as animals trustfully crept closer, no longer so concerned about my presence because they had just scored some treats!

Jonnie’s special friend, Munchkin.

I knelt down near the feeder waiting for my favorite little antelope, a sitatunga, to approach me. Her identification number is 183, complete with a red ear tag, but I call her Munchkin. She has always been very curious and even cautiously approaches us, which is somewhat uncharacteristic for prey animals. I picked up on her curiosity, and it didn’t take long for us to become friends.

Sitatungas have a swamp-dwelling, orange-brown skulking body with a sweet face but extremely sharp hooves designed for treading a muddy habitat. I had made an effort to give my new friend some attention each time I worked in the Safari Park’s East Africa exhibit. Gradually, she became more trusting and would almost always reliably come near the truck during feeding time. After some time, the rest of the herd followed her lead. She’s less than two years old and quite petite, so it’s funny to think that she is kind of the ringleader of this group!

The dependence of these animals on swampy territories in the wild, throughout the West African rain forest and wet areas of the southern savanna, makes them really hard to find. They can even submerge themselves all the way up to their nostrils and wade through the swamp. It is much easier to make sure all of our animals are accounted for and give them a quick glance to make sure they are in good health when they come closer to the truck. I love that the Safari Park’s exhibits allow animals to behave as they would in their natural environment, but it is especially cool to get this response from an animal that is incredibly elusive in the wild and naturally shies away from humans.

The Safari Park keepers have gained the sitatunga herd’s trust.

Caring for these animals can be a challenge, but our sitatunga herd has acclimated to the Park’s routines. Just last week, we were conducting a routine procedure on one of the females. Generally, the veterinary staff immobilizes an animal in the field to trim overgrown hooves, conduct necessary routine medical needs, such as collecting a blood sample, and then wake it up in the safety of a recovery pen. During this particular procedure, the first dart of immobilization agents did not discharge correctly, and the vet needed to follow up with another dart. Well, for a flighty animal, this would be the cue of “Hey, antelope, you just got a freebie. Get outta here!” But our sitatungas, so calm and uncharacteristically unaffected by all this commotion, simply stayed down in their swampy hangout, making it easier for the veterinary staff to try again.

We spread out on foot, keeping the target animal calm, yet corralled by a wall of people while the veterinarian re-loaded. The rest of the herd just milled around, creeping through the swampy ground as if it was no big deal that 10 people were on foot in their territory. Seriously? This scene was completely out of the ordinary, and they disregarded it as if they were too busy to notice. I am always amazed when we use words like “flighty” and “elusive” to describe them, and then we do something so different in their environment and it almost goes unnoticed. Sometimes I don’t think we give them enough credit for how tough and comfortable with their surroundings they really are. Anyway, the sitatunga was successfully darted, and the veterinary staff went about the procedure quickly and expertly. I love the reminder that our animals are unpredictable, and every day brings new and interesting activities.

We have a small herd of sitatungas in the East Africa exhibit and another pair in the Park’s Nairobi Village. Strangely enough, for shy, flighty animals, both of these groups are pretty friendly toward people and can be viewed during a Caravan Safari or on a Behind-the-Scenes Safari. The next time you visit the Park, see if you can spot the sitatungas in East Africa, creeping around through the marshy swamp.

Jonnie Capiro is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Where Are Those Rhinos?

Follow Jonnie’s tweets from the Safari Park’s field exhibit on the Safari Park’s Twitter!


Where Are Those Rhinos?

Alta and Charlees sleeping away in their “rhino hideout.”

One morning, I turned off the truck engine to enjoy the tranquility of the field exhibit at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and realized it was much more peaceful than usual. Why wasn’t a boisterous group of greater one-horned rhinos raiding the contents of my feed truck? Why couldn’t I hear them noisily chomping on carrots and apples? Why was it so eerily quiet and still out here? Where were the rhinos?

Rhino dynamics had changed quite drastically upon releasing new mom Alta and her now 4-month-old calf, Charlees, to the exhibit and temporarily housing Bhopu, our sire, in the boma yard to give Alta and Charlees some time to navigate the huge exhibit on their own for a few months (see post Rhino Calf Makes Debut). After Mom and calf cruised the entire exhibit checking things out, Alta took her baby down into the ravine, a rocky area that the rhinos seem to know we keepers can’t access, even with our four-wheel-drive trucks. The other four females followed suit. It seemed like they were just taking a break at first, but then a few days went by and we were all stumped: why aren’t they acting like they usually do?

The greater one-horned rhinos are notorious for being giant chowhounds. They are pretty reliable for approaching our trucks looking for a snack and sometimes even treating them like their own personal buffet, grabbing bags of feed, hoisting their large heads up onto the bed to quickly survey the contents for a shiny, red apple. But lately, they wouldn’t even bother to grace us with their presence first thing in the morning when we dish out hundreds of pounds of grain throughout the exhibit.

We realized we better make an effort to get the rhinos used to coming up to our trucks again. Each day, we tried to lure the rhinos over to a flat spot with a giant, leafy piece of their favorite treat: ficus browse. They barely responded. However, thanks to the evidence of the enormous rhino middens (poop piles spread throughout the exhibit; see Collecting Rhino Treasures); we know for a fact that they surfaced every day, just not during our work schedule. Hmm.

This went on for a few weeks, and then we started seeing them up and around the exhibit first thing in the morning. Aha! I approached Alta and Charlees cautiously, because one thing you should know about greater one-horned rhinos is that they are kind of dramatic; one minute you can be feeding them apples from the truck, and then who-knows-what initiates a reaction, and they trot off as if you’ve offended them. I calculated my approach, tossing pieces of food out of the window as a peace offering as I rolled to stop. Alta and I sized each other up. I was thinking, “Is she going to run off?” while she probably wondered, “Is this little truck driver going to mess with my kid?” I decided she was going to stay, so I hopped out of the driver’s seat and quickly scaled the back of truck and armed myself with all kinds of goodies.

I sat there and patiently waited for her to realize that she could trust me. I guess hunger won her over, because she slowly started lumbering toward my truck with kid in tow. I had the chance to interact with Charlees while she was in the boma, and Alta did a great job of being protective but not aggressive. In the safety of the boma, Alta would munch away on her treats while keeping a careful eye on Charlees, who would try to eat my entire hand after I fed her a tiny piece of banana. She already had tiny little teeth! I would reassure Alta by giving her plenty of positive reinforcement and letting her calf approach me on her own, instead of reaching out to Charlees. Now, out in the field, it’s like hitting the restart button. We have to develop a relationship all over again because of this big change in her environment.

As she approached the truck, I dropped an entire tub of food on the ground and also handed her a few apples. She must have been hungry, because she didn’t pay any attention to her child as she busily investigated the front of the truck. So far, so good. While Alta ate, Charlees made her way around to me. I reached my hand down with a tiny piece of apple, and she gobbled it right up! I fed her piece after piece while checking on Alta to make sure she was cool with this. She didn’t seem to mind. Alta finished her tub of treats but didn’t walk off like the rhinos usually do when the food is gone. I gave her some grain and hay to see if that would satisfy her, and it did. Charlees was also interested in this new food item and started playing with it with her somewhat uncoordinated prehensile lip. I sat and watched them eat, enjoying the company of this pair. Charlees is an extraordinary addition to our group of rhinos, and I’m proud that her mom has done such a great job of caring for her.

After this visit to the truck, Alta became more interested in approaching us again and allowing her calf to visit us. Eventually, Asha and Kaya emerged from the rhino hideout and were spotted feeding from Caravan Safari trucks and even lounging in the wallow. Whew, looks like things are getting back to normal…until we let Bhopu out of the boma in about a month!

Jonnie Capiro is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Cinco de Rhino.

Follow Jonnie’s tweets from the Safari Park’s field exhibit on the Safari Park’s Twitter!


Cinco de Rhino

One way to help rhinos? Throw a party!

It sure seems like we are having a party, but this is serious, official rhino conservation business! May was a particularly busy month for rhino conservation, and the keepers at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park contributed the best way possible by throwing a happy hour event! A couple of weeks ago, the Safari Park’s rhino keepers hosted the first-ever Cinco de Rhino event at Hacienda de Vega in Escondido. Although the International Rhino Foundation has been celebrating Cinco de Rhino for four years, this was the first year we hosted a celebration. There were friends, food, drinks, and prizes, and all of the proceeds directly support Rhino Protection Units (RPUs) in South Africa!

At the Safari Park, we carefully observe our animals every day, monitor their health and behavior, and attentively follow up on any concerns. In Asia and South Africa, Rhino Protection Units guard some of the wild populations of rhinos. Their trained staff are the front lines of defense against poaching. The job is risky and dangerous, yet very necessary. And we are here to help support them. In zoos, rhinos act as ambassadors for their species, demonstrating their beauty and importance. In their natural environments, they are an integral puzzle piece in a symbiotic relationship with nature, acting as gardeners for the forest by dispersing seeds to help maintain biodiversity. Rhinos are a flagship species, and saving them can influence an entire ecosystem.

It’s a pretty scary time for wild rhinos right now; they are incredibly threatened by poachers and the insatiable mis-belief that rhino horn is a cure for cancer. Rhino poaching is now conducted as organized crime and is a deadly threat to the future of this species. The latest tally of rhinos poached in South Africa is 227 this year alone, and the number keeps growing. Approximately 1 rhino is poached every 18 hours! It’s hard to sit back and watch the disappearance of these prehistoric creatures, and that’s why we are not sitting here—we’re partying!

An array of items were auctioned off to raise money for Rhino Protection Units.

While party guests sipped drinks, relaxed in the secluded seating areas, and mingled among tables of exciting and highly coveted prizes, we raised $4,489.37 for the International Rhino Foundation’s RPUs. More specifically, the money purchased 2 GPS units, 2 digital cameras, several transponders, and over $2,000 to be used at the Foundation’s discretion.

Initially, when we started planning the event, we hoped to gather donations for prizes and sell tickets to 200 people. Rhinos are so popular here at the Safari Park, and we have such a supportive organization, that we quickly sold out! It was an exciting night; we raffled off T-shirts, gift baskets, and tote bags to many lucky winners. The silent auction featured a private field tour at the Safari Park and paintings created by the rhinos themselves. Finally, our fearless supervisors volunteered their time by auctioning off their services, such as helping keepers complete some of their daily tasks, like loading a few hundred pounds of feed onto our trucks and completing tedious paperwork that is a necessary part of our job. It’s a nice reminder that our love of animals, and our goal to protect them, brings us all together, working toward wildlife conservation.

The Cinco de Rhino planning committee extends its sincere appreciation to everyone who attended and supported this event to benefit rhino conservation. I’d also like to give special thanks to Charlie Hyde, Jennifer Minichino, and Matt Gelvin for helping pull the event together. We are already looking forward to next year’s event, which will be held on May 5, 2013, at the Town and Country Resort in San Diego. All are welcome to attend!

Jonnie Capiro is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Ungulates: Underdogs of the Zoo World.

Follow Jonnie’s tweets on the Safari Park’s Twitter!



Ungulates: Underdogs of the Zoo World

A young female nilgai gets eye to eye with Jonnie!

I almost always root for the underdog. Did you know that most ungulates (hoofed animals) are the underdogs of the zoo world? Well, for starters, they are low man on the food chain in their natural habitats—just a bunch of snacks hanging around the watering holes in African and Asian landscapes. They are underestimated for their value and significance in their respective ecosystems. Ungulates don’t get enough credit, and I think that’s why I love working with them and acting as an advocate for them! I wish the public could see what I see at work each day at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and have a greater appreciation for these kinds of animals, too.

A male blackbuck antelope strives to impress the ladies.

What I see in the wide, open fields that house antelope, rhinos, deer, cattle, and giraffes, are protective moms lovingly caring for their young, animals instinctively sticking tight with the herd, tough males fighting it out to claim a territory or a herd of girls, animals grazing in the green grass, and lots and lots of activity! This connection of multiple species in a huge exhibit is just as exciting as seeing exhibits for lions, tigers, elephants, and gorillas.

An important part of a keeper’s job is to observe the animals. By taking the time to watch them when they are unaware of our presence, we learn fascinating things about the intricacies of herd dynamics, breeding behavior, and potential aggression among our males. For instance, our herd of Indian blackbuck, a type of Asian antelope, might as well be a reality show right now. There are multiple males guarding territories, courting females, and trying to stake their claim over the coveted prize: becoming the dominant male! The dominant male, or herd sire, wins the prize of integrating his genes into the population. Part of blackbuck courtship involves the male strutting around, ears pinned down, pre-orbital glands flared, taking each step deliberately as if to say, “Hey, ladies! You interested?” This courtship strategy is quite successful for the males, and we have a bunch of cute little blackbuck calves to prove it!

Female barasingha are mildly curious of our photographer.

I’m guessing that at some point in your life you had a connection with an ungulate—maybe it was visiting a farm on a school field trip, growing up with horses nearby, catching a quick glimpse of a deer in the wild for the first time when you went camping, or even watching Bambi as a kid and feeling a sense of connection with these iconic, yet familiar characters. I work with these species every day, and it’s the coolest job I’ve ever had!

The next time you visit the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, or your own local zoo, take some time to look at the background players and see what you think. Ungulates need love, too!

Jonnie Capiro is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, New Nilgai Girls.