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.