What’s it like to work with the rarest rhino in the world?

I started working at the Safari Park in 1983, and was working with the animals by 1984. The most frequently asked question I’ve had is “What is it like to work with rhinos?” Of late it’s been “What is it like to work with the rarest rhino in the world?”

One of my charges is Nola. She is one of only four northern white rhino alive on our planet. Their story is well known; the northern white rhino population has gone from 2000 in the 1960s, to 500 in the 1970s, to just 4 today. None of the four remaining animals can breed, so the only thing left for them is extinction.

Jane (left) & fellow keepers clip Nola’s nails

For me and the team that I work with here at the Safari Park, that’s just unacceptable. The Safari Park has been a captive breeding haven birthing more than 20,000 mammals, many of which are endangered. We are the most successful breeding facility in the world! The Safari Park has helped bring back species like the California condor, the Arabian oryx, the giant panda, and many others that could be lost to extinction if it weren’t for the work we do. The thought of not doing everything we can to help the northern white rhino is unimaginable. Yes, it will be complicated and difficult, but we can do it if we work as a global team.

Jane tends to Nola

Jane tends to Nola

As keepers, our part of the puzzle isn’t developing the science we will need, our part is to give the hands-on care these rhinos need to survive and thrive. For me, that means giving Nola the best care she can receive for her remaining days. At 41 she is the oldest recorded female northern white rhino. Her last day can be any day. My job is to make every one of those days a good one. It usually involves apples and alfalfa (something we now know is not a good thing for white rhino) and of course some love in the form of scratches behind her ears. For the rest of her life I am charged with being her lead keeper; the human she can most rely upon to take care of her. I plan on doing this job to the utmost of my abilities and give her the love that she needs.

You are part of her team too. Every time you support San Diego Zoo Global you support Nola. Your dollars will make the Rhino Rescue Center a reality. What I will do for you is share Nola’s remaining days with you. You can be part of her team that makes sure every day is a good day. Watch for my posts about Nola and what her days have been like. Thank you for caring about her, and all of the other animals being protected from extinction here at the Safari Park and San Diego Zoo. What we do makes a difference.

Jane Kennedy is lead keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Feeling Better and Getting Her Nails Done: Northern White Rhino at San Diego Zoo Safari Park Gets Pedicure.


Rhino with a Runny Nose: Rare Rhino Undergoes Veterinary Exam at San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Rhino ExamNola, a 40-year-old northern white rhino, underwent a veterinary exam earlier this morning at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, allowing associate veterinarian Meredith Clancy to swab her nostrils to collect mucus samples as keepers Kim Millspaugh and Mike Veale assisted.

The elderly Nola was placed under veterinary care on Saturday after her keepers noticed she had reduced appetite and activity levels and had a thick nasal discharge. The Safari Park’s veterinary team is providing Nola with the optimal care to thrive by giving her an injection of antibiotics to ward off any possible infection and is awaiting results from blood work and today’s nasal samples to determine if further medical treatment is needed.

Nola, who is already being treated for age-related arthritis, has been moved to a heated enclosure inside her Asian Plains field exhibit to provide her comfort from the chilly weather and allow the animal care team to keep close watch over her.

Nola is one of just five northern white rhinos left in the world. Recently, Angalifu, a 44-year-old male northern white rhino who also lived at the Safari Park, died of age-related causes. Three other northern white rhinos are in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya and one is in the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic. The five remaining rhinos are all of an advanced age and have not been able to reproduce. Poaching for its horn has brought the northern white rhino to the brink of extinction.

Photo taken on Dec. 29, 2014, by Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo Safari Park.


Elderly Northern White Rhino Passes Away at San Diego Zoo Safari Park

SafariParkA northern white rhino, Angalifu, passed away in the early hours of this morning, Sunday December 14. The male rhino, who was estimated to be 44 years of age, was under veterinary care for a variety of age related conditions. His death leaves only 5 Northern white rhinos left in the world: one elderly female at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, 1 at a zoo in Czechoslovakia and 3 in Africa.

“Angalifu’s death is a tremendous loss to all of us.” said Randy Rieches, curator of mammals for the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. “Not only because he was well beloved here at the Park but also because his death brings this wonderful species one step closer to extinction.”

Northern white rhinos have been brought to the brink of extinction due to poaching in Africa. Unfortunately only a few have been preserved at zoos and these have been largely non-reproductive.

“More than two decades ago we started working with the species here at the Safari Park.” Said Barbara Durrant, director of reproductive physiology for the San Diego Zoo Institute of Conservation Research. “Unfortunately we only had three rhinos here at the Park and they were all of an advanced age. We were not able to get them to breed and we have been sadly watching their species being exterminated in the wild.”

In the wild rhinos are killed for their horns, a unique physiological feature made up of keratin (the same material in human fingernails). Many cultures believe rhino horn has medicinal value and the black-market in horns taken from poached animals continues to thrive.

Protected from the poaching that has wiped out northern white rhinos in Africa, Angalifu has been living at the Safari Park since his arrival from the Khartoum Zoo in the late 1980s. Although holding out little hope for the species, conservationists at San Diego Zoo Global continue to work to find a way to recover the species. Semen and testicular tissue from the male rhino have been stored in the Frozen Zoo with the hope that new reproductive technologies will allow recovery of the species.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the mission of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes onsite wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The important conservation and science work of these entities is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of the Zoological Society of San Diego.


Who Likes Rain: Giraffes, Rhinos, or Elephants?

Giraffes come to a Caravan Safari truck to see if tasty acacia leaves are being handed out.

Giraffes come to a Caravan Safari truck to see if tasty acacia leaves are being handed out.

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s weather patterns parallel those in our animals’ native African habitats: hot, dry, and sunny for most of the year with a rainy season from October through April. Like California, East Africa is prone to flash floods, droughts, and fires. So most of the animals in the African field exhibits at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park feel right at home.

Our animals also display seasonal preferences. Safari Park giraffes are most active during the summer months. Six giraffe calves were born this summer! The giraffes range across their entire 60-acre habitat and chow down on acacia leaves offered by guests on Caravan Safari tours. Frankly, it’s difficult to manage more than one giraffe feeding at a time on a Caravan Safari truck. Acacia leaves are the giraffes’ favorite part of their diet. The giraffes are so excited to eat from the guests’ hands that during the summer they descend on the trucks en masse and can get a little pushy with each other—but it’s quite fun for our guests!

If it’s raining, the giraffes huddle together under palm trees or man-made shelters and refuse to approach the Caravan Safari trucks for acacia leaves. My observations indicate that giraffes don’t like rain and prefer the dry, summer months.

A mud wallow hits the spot for this white rhino.

A mud wallow hits the spot for this white rhino.

Rhinos and elephants are a different story. Southern white rhinos and African elephants are the Safari Park’s largest animals and need to stay cool in the summer. Some of our rhinos also spent this past summer pregnant, with 150 pounds of added weight. You can imagine how uncomfortable that was. To stay cool, they rest in the shade or wallow in man-made watering holes. When the mud from the watering holes dries on their skin, it acts like sunscreen and insect repellent to help protect their hairless skin from the harsh African or Escondido sun.

But when a storm first breaks over the Safari Park, the rhinos and elephants race around their exhibits, vocalizing to each other. I have never seen rhino and elephant calves as playful as they are during a rainstorm. Typically, only about one third of Caravan Safari tours get to feed the greater one-horned rhinos. During a rainstorm, the probability increases. That is, if the rhinos stop frolicking in the rain long enough to eat apples!

Unfortunately, California has been experiencing one of its severest droughts on record, which has impacted the Safari Park in innumerable ways. A lack of rainwater to irrigate the African field habitats is one. The majority of the grass in these habitats is African kikuyu grass, a hardy, water-wise species. However, it does need to be watered occasionally, because many of the ungulates in these habitats are grazers and depend on the grass for food. The keepers supplement the animals’ diets with hay, alfalfa, and pellets multiple times per day, but most of the ungulates are nature’s lawnmowers and instinctively perform natural grazing behaviors.

Additionally, the southern white rhinos, elephants, and Cape buffalo enjoy a gooey mud wallow. Without rainfall to restock the wallows, water recycled from the Safari Park’s water treatment plant and ponds fills the void. In this way, the Safari Park animals experience the advantages of a wet season without adding pressure to the California water shortage.

Hopefully it will rain in San Diego soon! Does anyone know a rain dance?

Elise Newman is a Safari Caravan guide at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Personable Petunia.


Rhinos: Never Give Up, Never Surrender

The Safari Park's most recent eastern black rhino calf, Eric. There are only about 700 eastern black rhinos left in the wild.

In response to a recent article published by msnbc.com declaring the extinction of the western black rhino, Safari Park Curator of Mammals Randy Rieches had this to say:

“This is such incredibly horrible news. Within the last couple months we have seen the last Javan rhino in Vietnam poached, the western black rhino declared extinct, and numerous rhinos of all taxa in Africa and Asia poached for their horns, which are now being sold on the black market for up to $100,000 a kilo.

We thought that last year was such a horrendous year for rhinos being poached in Africa and Asia that it couldn’t get any worse. Unfortunately, we now see that the numbers continue to escalate higher in 2011.

There is no end in site to the carnage wreaked upon this magnificent family. As a conservationist, the term ‘never give up, never surrender’ has never carried more meaning.”

I second Randy’s sentiments, and if you’re reading this blog post you probably do, too. We can’t let human greed win this time. Help us spread the word about the dire plight of rhinos. Like, tweet, share, and re-share this blog post with your friends. Only through increased awareness can we inspire compassion and drive action to save rhinos. Unless we want to lose this incredible animal forever, we have to follow Randy’s advice: “never give up, never surrender.”

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, Get Invited to Festival of Flight Tweet-up.


Collecting Rhino Treasures: Poop!

Two of the Park's greater one-horned rhinos on the prowl for food.

What’s the equivalent of having a case of the “Mondays” as a zookeeper? How about accidentally throwing poop out of the truck window and being disappointed about it? Yup, this was my day last week. My job at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is anything but typical, and the mishaps are always out of the ordinary. When you ask a keeper how his or her day was, be prepared—we don’t hold back! You never know what kind of gory details we’ll share with you.

Once a week, we strategically collect fecal samples on all five greater one-horned rhino females and submit them to the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research for hormonal analysis. These samples are really hard to get, but they provide tons of information about the rhinos’ reproductive patterns and help us determine which is pregnant, and when we should expect a baby rhino! (See Rhinos: Sounds of Romance.)

It may sound crazy that these samples are so hard to come by. Rhino poop is huge, and there’s a lot of it, but there’s a trick to collecting a single sample from a group that uses a communal dung pile. This pile is called a midden, and rhinos use it as a message station; they investigate the pile and then defecate in the same spot. While doing this, they root through the pile with their horn, scrape their hind feet, and then spread scent by walking through it and dispersing it with their feet.  The Safari Park rhinos use a midden, and they often line up and defecate one after the other. If you’re not on your game, it can be impossible to identify and collect even just one sample, let alone all five female samples, from this group of seven rhinos.

The ill-fated fecal samples in the rhinos' carrot bucket

Anyway, I was on a roll collecting samples. The group had spread out in the exhibit, so I was guaranteed to get samples from at least a few of them, if not all five that day. I already had two, and without thinking anything of it, I put the small sample cups into a bucket of carrots in the passenger seat, like I usually do. I spotted the other rhino girls across the exhibit and hurried over to them. I pulled up to a midden and called them to the truck. They walked over and some of them went to the pile while the rest came over and ransacked my truck! They yanked feed bags off the back, stole food from the tubs of goodies, and tried to stick their heads in the windows!

One of the younger girls, Sundari, investigated the pile and provided a sample. Great! I was ready to drive closer and pick it up before another rhino could ruin it, but first I had to get the rest of the rhinos away from my truck so I could drive. Instinctively, I grabbed a handful of carrots from the bucket and carelessly threw them out the window for the rhinos to chase. Greater one-horned rhinos love food, and this method usually works, but as soon as the carrots went sailing off into the exhibit, a small plastic cup caught my eye—I had tossed the sample right out the window with the carrots! Shoot! It landed only a few feet away, but I was surrounded by thousands of pounds of rhinoceros. I had no choice but to stay in my truck. I decided to maneuver the truck into position right over the sample cup to protect it.

The rhinos seemed particularly hungry that day and weren’t falling for my scattered carrot trick; they chose to feed from the truck buffet instead. Hmm. I had to get more creative, but as I was brainstorming, Bhopu, our 10-year-old male, lumbered over to the midden and began to…poop! He was ruining Sundari’s sample. I had to make a snap decision: stay and protect the sample under my truck or get closer to the midden to retrieve Sundari’s sample.

I figured the tiny sample cup wouldn’t attract much attention, so I momentarily abandoned it attempting to save Sundari’s sample. I sped forward and heard a crunch—oops! Oh well; I was committed, so I proceeded to the midden. Unfortunately, I was too late. Bhopu ruined Sundari’s sample, and I had driven over the other one. I was defeated by a bunch of hungry rhinos and my own uncoordinated efforts.

The rhinos grew bored with me and wandered away. I got out to retrieve the squished cup, and ta-da! Those cups are pretty tough; the cup was broken, but the sample was fine. All was not lost. Now, on with the rest of the day!

Whew! And that was just my morning.

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




Day in Life of Safari Park Keeper

When the alarm shattered my cozy unconsciousness at the ungodly hour of 4:30 am, I could already tell that the public’s perception of what keepers do isn’t entirely true. They don’t just frolic through grassy fields with animals all day. They wake up at the crack of dawn, they sweat all day in the hot sun, and they get their hands very dirty to take care of the animals we all love. After a day shadowing keepers at the Safari Park, I have renewed respect for the role they play in protecting and preserving the precious wildlife of our planet for future generations to enjoy.

When I arrived at the Safari Park at 6 a.m., I met up with Lead Keeper Jane Kennedy. Jane has been with the Park for a whopping 26 years. When I asked her what her favorite part of the job is, she said it’s working with rhinos. In fact, she’s the vice president of the International Rhino Keeper Association, and she’s helped organize conferences around the world about rhino husbandry. Aside from rhinos, she also enjoys the variety. Keepers at the Safari Park are expected to be jacks-of-all-trades and are constantly transferred to different areas to keep things fresh. “Two years working here is like ten at another place,” Jane said.

After a brief chat, Jane handed me off to keeper Jen Minichino, whom I tagged along with for the first half of the day. Jen has been a keeper for about two years and has loved (almost) every minute. “I love love love my job. I feel so fortunate. We have the best crew in the world.”

Jen and I loaded up the truck with food and drove off into the Park just as the sun was rising and the animals were beginning to stir. I was struck by how certain animals reacted differently to our presence. Some came running up eagerly, others kept their distance, and others were somewhere in between. This is because some are hand raised, some are practically wild, and some are, well, somewhere in between. “Getting to know the animals as individuals is my favorite part of the job,” Jen said.

Keepers Ken, Jane, Matt, Steve, Jen & Karen after the successful transport of a Nile lechwe

Jen and I made our rounds counting and feeding the different animals in the Asian Plains exhibit, including a group of pushy greater one-horned rhinos that had a mean hankering for some apples and carrots. Then it was time to transport a Nile lechwe. However, transporting a wild animal isn’t as easy as dropping the kids off at school. It involves a tranquilizer gun, just the right dosage of tranquilizer, two trucks, a trailer, six keepers, and an experienced veterinarian. Considering all of the variables, the procedure went surprisingly well—a testament to the considerable skill and experience of the Safari Park crew.

After lunch I was handed off to Keeper Matt Gelvin, who has been a keeper for seven years. Matt took me under his wing and showed me around all the unseen nooks and crannies of the Park, including a tour of our state-of-the-art animal hospital. Now that I was better acquainted with the Park, it was time to head out and feed some giraffes. Matt surprised me by how well he knew the giraffes’ names, and I asked him how long it took him to memorize their markings to tell them apart. “A long time,” he said, “a long time.”

Keeper Matt preoccupied while a giraffe sneaks some browse from the back of his truck

Feeding the giraffes was hands down my favorite part of the day. They’re just so darned charming! Even when they’re sneaking bits of browse from the bed and cab of our truck, it’s hard not to love ‘em. If you’ve ever been on a Caravan Safari tour then you know what I mean.

At the end of the day I was caked with dirt, covered in rhino and giraffe slobber, smelling of eight different kinds of feces, sunburned and drenched in sweat—but my face hurt from smiling. While a keeper’s job isn’t frolicking through grassy fields with animals all day, it’s pretty close. It’s just that you have to pick up after the animals, care for them when they’re sick or injured, and do everything in your power to nurture them and help them thrive. I’d say that’s a fair trade.

Check out the rest of the pictures from my day as a Safari Park Keeper on flickr.

Matt Steele is the social media planner for the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Fall Members Appreciation Dinners.


Rhino Playtime

The rhino brothers eagerly accept treats from a Backstage Pass participant.

The rhino brothers eagerly accept treats from a Backstage Pass participant.

It has been a few months since my last update on our two Indian rhinos, Soman and Surat (see post Rhinos Move across the Street) at the San Diego Zoo. They have been very busy relaxing in the sun, hanging out in their pool, and meeting guests everyday. Moving to the former elephant exhibit has offered them many things. A bigger barn, a huge pool, and a much larger exhibit, which they have been taking full advantage of.

Many guests wonder when the animals are active at the Zoo. Most days it is early in the morning when the keepers are cleaning and feeding and at the end of the day when the sun is going down. Luckily, many of our guests have been able to see our rhino brothers in full spirit regularly. If you stop by the rhino exhibit in the Zoo’s Urban Jungle, you will see the speed and agility of these large herbivores.

They usually start by using their horns to push each other around while in the pool. Soman will put his horn under Surat’s back legs and lift him a foot in the air. This may not sound like much until you realize that Surat weighs about 3,000 pounds (1,360 kilograms)! Soman also stands up on Surat’s back to survey the view. They spin in circles, hitting each other in the sides and pushing, until one decides to run out of the pool. The other gives chase and the fun begins! They run full speed around the yard and through the gates, navigating quickly around any obstacle. If it has been dry recently, a big cloud of dust obscures the view of portions of the exhibit. They have a blast! It is a great show for the guests and the rhinos get some good exercise out of it, too.

People wonder if it is fighting or too violent, but this is normal rhino play. They push and shove anything they can get to, be it a tree, toy, or other rhino. It is healthy play and helps keep them in shape. They love the lounging part of the day so much that I am glad they get a chance to get up and get their hearts going.

So if you stop by and the pool is filling or it is late in the afternoon, take a look at the cloud of dust going by. You just might see two rhinos in a healthy play battle!

Laura Weiner is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Rhino Brothers Form Attachment

Surat is the one standing in this photo.

Surat is the one standing in this photo.

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.

Surat is the one standing in this photo as well.

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.