Learning about being a rhino keeper

Cathy Dean, Director

Save the Rhino is really keen to work with zoos to build support for field programmes in African and Asia, so when I received an invitation from the lovely Jane Kennedy to attend the International Rhino Keepers’ Association (IRKA)’s Rhino Keepers’ Workshop (RKW) in May 2013 in San Diego, I was quick to accept. Jane and her husband Ed had spoken at our own Rhino Mayday back in 2008, and it would be good to see them again. I also knew a few of the other speakers due to attend: Susie Ellis, Executive Director of the International Rhino Foundation; Amit Sharma of WWF-India, one of the partners in IRV2020; Dedi Candra, the veterinarian from the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary; and Mark Cleave, one of the keepers from Chester Zoo.

Saturday 4 May

I waved goodbye to my husband, cats and tortoises and headed to Heathrow, regretting that for what felt like the umpteenth time this year I was missing a Bank Holiday at home. Arrived at the Town and Country Resort in San Diego early evening.

Sunday 5 May

Sunday morning: edited some AfRSG papers from the meeting, wandered over to the hotel café for lunch and spotted Dedi Candra, who then introduced me to Bill Konstant, the IRF’s Program Officer (we’d emailed many times but had never met before). Then we went to register for the conference, met Jane and her team from San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, collected a goody bag full of rhino stuff, including a rather fine IRKA mug, and had a companiable beer with a bunch of keepers and Rhishja Larson from www.Annamiticus.com (again, we’d been in frequent email contact but hadn’t actually met).

Susie Ellis Dedi Candra Cathy Dean IRKA (c) Bill Konstant

My roommate Susie Ellis arrived: our “womance” continues from the other meetings this year in Kenya (the African Rhino Specialist Group meeting) and Singapore (the Sumatran Rhino Crisis Summit) and we headed to the RKW icebreaker and dinner, themed around Cinco de Mayo, which is a big deal in San Diego as it’s only 15kms or so from the Mexican border. Happily, there are five species of rhino, so celebrating five x 5th day x 5th month makes all kind of sense, particularly when fuelled by plenty of Californian Merlot, tortillas and refried beans. They have a cute trick with raffles in the States: the tickets come in a long roll, and they were selling 1 for $1 etc. or $20 for an “arm’s length”. Despite handing my $20 over to someone with the arm span of an albatross, I won absolutely nothing as usual.

Monday 6 May

Today we had a whole day of presentations. Susie Ellis gave the keynote speech, about the situation in Africa and Asia as well as an update on IRF programmes, and then there was a whole range of talks on captive rhino issues, with a particular emphasis today on rhino births, breech births, stillborns and a potential link to an early rupture of the amniotic sac, hand-rearing calves (for example if the cow has mastitis), and an assessment of phytoestrogen content in Southern white rhino diets. A South African vet who works in Kruger, Peter Buss, talked us through a range of capture and translocation methods being used in the field, ranging from crate design to immobilization techniques.

I kept hearing rhino keepers muttering that they aren’t used to sitting on chairs all day, and there have been suggestions of importing a load of lucerne and a few shovels at the back of the conference room so that they can do the normal daily exercise…

DSC09017In the evening, a small posse of us headed to the Old Town (well, the Americans think it’s old, it dates from the early 19th century) for another Mexican feast and a happy hour full of margaritas. Peter Buss and his wife Michele Miller both fondly reminisced about the Dangerous Drugs course held annually in Malilangwe, Zimbabwe, and they were adamant that I should make a case for going on this in future! Can just see me darting buffalo in Borough Market…

Tuesday 7 May

I think my talk (about Save the Rhino and how we work with zoos to support in situ conservation programmes) went OK, and one brave keeper, Sean Ramsdell from Busch Gardens, sounds interested in running the London Marathon for us next year. DSC09095 For the rest of the meeting, people kept asking about our rhino costumes and how hard it was to run in them. The keepers already do an enormous amount for rhino conservation through personal fundraising efforts for the IRKA and for Bowling for Rhinos, an annual event in the USA: wouldn’t it be great if the Europeans could do something similar? There’s talk of Chester Zoo hosting the next IRKA workshop (in 2015; they’re every two years), and it would be good to come to that too and renew acquaintances. We should try to hold the Rhino Mayday to coincide with the RKW if so.

This morning’s talks were about dealing with disease in rhinos, so now I know all about large-volume phlebotomy (draining pints of blood off rhinos, the purpose of which is to reduce iron overload, which can be a killer for captive rhinos (wrong diet probably) – bit like Hancock’s “Why, that’s very nearly an armful!”). I vow to use the phrase “large-volume phlebotomy” in daily conversation for a few days until I am sure that it rolls off the tongue convincingly. Michele Miller spoke about an IRF-funded research project she’d worked on, that developed a scoring system to assess objectively the adaptation of recently captured white rhinos to captivity in bomas; this will be of great benefit to many of the field programmes we support.

In the afternoon we went to San Diego Zoo, where I’d signed up for a tour of the pathology department (i.e. where they do autopsies on dead animals and take tissue samples for further analysis and then a backstage pass for the Greater one-horned rhinos (closer than the general visiting public get to the rhinos).DSC09025 Best question in the pathology dept was someone asking if the chemical incinerator they use to melt down the flesh into flushable gloop and bone ash smelled. The answer was that necropsies do smell, so actually they don’t notice the incinerator smell and have their picnic table right next to it. I was also amused to see that the pathology lab does not have a clear desk policy and stuffed toys, photos of family pets etc. are all round the lab. I’d been rather tempted to sign up for the pangolin and lion / jaguar guided tours, but that would have felt too touristy and I was meant to be working.

DSC09055The rest of the afternoon was free, so I wandered round the zoo in beautiful sunshine: queued for the panda exhibit twice, as they have a 9-month old cub (natural breeding rather than artificial insemination) who was gamboling around its mother being unbearably cute. And then a fabulous walk through aviary with stunning birds and walkways at three different heights – just wonderful.

Boat House dinner San Diego (c) Bill KonstantThis evening Susie and I took some people out to dinner at a marina on the ocean front: Amit Sharma, Dedi Candra, Bill Konstant and Rhisjha Larson and her husband Andy. A lovely evening and good discussion – it is helpful to be able to reinforce the relationships, especially given that in the 12 years of being at SRI, I’ve been to Indonesia and India just once each; catching up with the guys here is good.

Wednesday 8 May

DSC09093A whole day of presentations again, with sessions from Amit on IRV2020, Dedi on the SRS, and a guy called Henry Opio, who works at the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre, which has two Southern white rhinos (SWRs). UWEC, the Uganda Wildlife Authority and Rhino Fund Uganda have discussed the possibility that UWEC’s two SWRs (aged about 16/17, have never mated) should swap into Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, and two young animals (aged 2-7, so non-breeding but independent) should move to UWEC. This could boost the breeding potential for the Ziwa animals, while allowing UWEC to continue to have ambassador animals. If it works, and if the UWEC animals settle at Ziwa, it could be a good compromise.

One thing I really liked was that the presentation lengths were very varied. At the beginning and end of each session (so morning part 1, morning part 2, afternoon part 1, afternoon part 2) they would have a 5-minute “Facility focus”, when a keeper from a zoo would very quickly present their rhinos, the enclosure, their feeding / cleaning / veterinary / training routines: meant that lots of people in the audience spoke, but not too much of an ordeal for the nervous. The changes of pace from 5- to 15-, 20-, 30- and 40-minute presentations kept it all quite fresh. Something for Rhino Maydays in future maybe? And I learned lots more about dental care for rhinos, how diet impacts iron storage etc.

(I was thinking that we could put together an animated PowerPoint on Youtube to send to the IRKA, showing the SRI facility: shots of the rhinos (us), explanation that the breeding programme is not going well (we’re a bachelorette herd), shots of the food preparation areas (kettle, microwave and kitchen sink), explanation of our target training methods (hand on mouse), veterinary care (the First Aid kit), our floor substrate (carpet and gaffer tape), heating for winter… etc.)

At the end of the formal workshop, Susie, Bill and I had a mini work meeting with Amit Sharma about IRV2020 and what he thinks should happen in Manas, where there has been a recent spate of poaching. Having had time to consider a range of responses, they are leaning towards implementing an enhanced community engagement programme, in return for commitment to share intelligence about poachers.

About 60 of us went out to an Indonesian restaurant for “Dinner with Andatu”, in honour of the Sumatran rhino calf born at the SRS on 23 June 2012. The date is engraved on many people’s hearts.

Thursday 10 May

credit SRIEveryone went to San Diego Safari Park, which is about 40 minutes’ drive out of the city, for a series of tours: in trucks around the African and Indian exhibits, to see all the rhinos; then of the hospital (probably better equipped than most people hospitals in the UK); and then of the Institute of Conservation and Research, where the “Frozen Zoo” is based (cryogenically preserved cell tissues etc).

Then some free time: I watched the cheetah run – a 100m sprint for the cheetah chasing a fluffy toy on the end of a string, which was all over in 4.3 seconds. A tram ride through the Park to see more animals, followed by an animal encounter while they were setting up for dinner: an adorable three-banded armadillo that trotted round in front of us all. Dinner was followed by a raffle and silent auction.

They do raffles slightly differently here too: all the prizes are set out in a line, with buckets in front of each, so you buy your strip and then distribute them between the buckets depending on what you want to win. I had put all my tickets (two arm lengths) in one bucket because I really wanted the prize – a book and a “Rhino crossing” road sign – but failed as usual. I then thought that I might have done better not to have bought raffle tickets but simply negotiated with the person who did win the lot. I (inevitably) bid in the silent auction – Susie and I got competitive – and won some ultra-scanning microscope photographs of rhino urine crystals – rather beautiful. One will go in the bathroom at home and the other can be donated for an SRI event.

Friday 11 May

Susie and I had a lazy breakfast in a beautiful bit of San Diego called Coronado, a beachfront part of town that looks like an idyllic place to live. As we were cruising along, we spotted a place called the Rhinoceros Café and Grill, so dove into a parking space and secured a pavement table. Apparently some keepers had also stumbled across the place on Saturday night, and had been similarly enthused by the rhino-themed décor. credit SRI

Then to the airport, and a long afternoon editing AfRSG papers, before the flight home.

My very grateful thanks to the International Rhino Keepers’ Association and the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park for hosting me, and to the tremendous keepers I met who were so warm and welcoming. Looking forward to Chester 2015!

4 thoughts on “Learning about being a rhino keeper

  1. Zoos can not save species on their own , animals need habitat and healthy gene pool (a few thousand animals at least. ) Marathon running and charity dinners .. Why is the poaching in rise in Africa then? With this tempo they are going to dies out soon

  2. Great Cathy. (I always wanted to know what ‘large-volume phlebotomy’ was all about). Interesting stuff. I need to visit San Diego.

  3. Thank you Cathy, this was a really interesting read. Obviously not everyone can attend these events so it is great to get an insight into what was discussed.

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