July 12, 2007
Here are our two white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum), Tamba and Jasiri. They are both about five years old and each weighs around two tons. T-Boy and J-Boy (as I refer to them with zoo visitors*) are males from two different zoos who came to our zoo a couple of years ago.
There are five species of rhinoceros still extant (in parts of Africa and Asia), and all are endangered. The whites are doing better in this respect than the other four species but still require vigilant and vigorous anti-poaching efforts.
For all their bulk and weight, white rhinos are surprisingly delicate on their feet. Their front legs step quite gracefully as they walk. They can also move very quickly, especially if they are startled or alarmed. Imagine 4,000 pounds of animal peacefully at rest one moment and then popping to its feet when disturbed. And since rhinos don’t see well and tend to charge at anything they perceive as a threat, their keepers must be particularly careful in their vicinity. At some zoos, keepers work in what is called “free contact” with their rhinos. At our zoo, the policy is “protected contact,” in which the keeper (or any other handler) works with the rhino through bars and uses positive reinforcement to control the animal.
Most zoo animals respond well to food items used as treats, rewards, or enrichment. White rhinos appear to be an exception. So far, our keepers have not discovered anything to eat or smell that appears to engage the rhino or facilitate a desired behavior. What rhinos do like is to be scratched. I have often seen one of our rhinos approach the bars at the keeper’s command and stand patiently to be scratched: behind the ears, on the face, on his massive sides, or under his tail. They appear to enjoy it immensely (!). One keeper reported using this method to coax one of the rhinos to move step by step onto the floor scale for a routine weighing.
I have been fortunate enough to touch a few rhinos—through the bars of course. While feeding apples to Indian rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis) at the San Diego Animal Park (http://www.sandiegozoo.org), I touched their faces, which in the horn area feels like nothing so much as rough concrete. I have also stroked their (often) quite hairy ears and put my hand on their huge sides. Like all mammals, rhinos have hair, but it is only when you place your hand on the rhino’s flank that you become aware of the numerous short, prickly hairs that cover it.
There is a lot more to say about rhinos, so readers can look forward to another entry on this website about our chocolate-dipped white rhinos and their congeners.
*The zoo animal’s name is used for training (for husbandry purposes). If the name is overused by visitors calling out, “Hi, Tamba! Tamba! How are you, Tamba?” the name loses its impact as an attention-getting device for training.