Soman and Surat, our two Indian rhinoceros brothers, are doing great on Elephant Mesa at the San Diego Zoo (see Laura’s previous blog, Adventures in Rhino Keeping).
Surat has become attached, literally, to Soman. He follows behind Soman wherever he goes. It is quite cute but posed a problem for behavioral management. First we started separating them in the barn during the morning cleaning. Normally we would come into the barn and see them resting next to each other in the same barn. At first we would close the door in between them for a couple of minutes to observe their behavior. Soman didn’t seem to care that he was alone, but Surat was definitely agitated. He would bang his head (a normal rhino behavior) against the door, trying to get back to his favorite friend and brother. We chose to ignore this behavior and only put them back together when they were both calm. After a few days, they were separated during the cleaning time and given some of their food in their respective barns. It took about a week for Surat to realize that all of the banging in the world would not get him back with his brother. He has since begun to quietly eat his pellets and wait until they are both let out onto exhibit together.
Actually they are doing so well that I have been working with them and some other trainers to separate them a couple of times each day. You never know when you will need to medicate an animal or perform a veterinary procedure. It is always nice to be able to separate animals in a non-stressful way. My new goal is to separate them on exhibit so each can learn behaviors. I tried working behaviors with both at the same time, but they would just push the other out of the way to get more treats. I recruited another keeper, Lindsey, who had just transferred from the Wild Animal Park. We have been working on walking them around the exhibit, each one of us taking a rhino, holding one in place while the other walks, and even having them walk around one another. (We don’t actually go in the exhibit, of course, but walk along the back fence and have the rhino follow along.) They are both learning to come when called but still need to work on their focus. Both Surat and Soman see us as treat suppliers and will go to whoever is closest. But they have been improving rapidly and every day we switch things up to keep them on their toes.
Best of all, Surat finally realized that a belly rub is a good thing. For a while he would barge in on Soman and get in the way of the brushing session. Now Surat will stand still and raise his tail just a few inches (this means a happy rhino) while enjoying the attention.
Laura Weiner is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.