Rhinos' Journey, Part 2: Travel to the new home

Rhinos loving mud - don’t it make a white rhino brown.
Rhinos loving mud - don’t it make a white rhino brown.

How does a rhino get to Nashville?

Not long after four white rhinos from South Africa arrived at the Nashville Zoo, lead rhino keeper Jason Faessler made an observation that would be good news for zoo goers. The rhinos were not alarmed by the presence of humans.

Though it may be little appreciated, our ability as zoo goers to see four calm rhinos on any given day is a gift from their caretakers in South Africa, a country in a veritable war with wildlife crime. Faessler concluded that our four rhinos, now named Modwani, Norma, Kacie and Nandi, must have received a good deal of human handling on their South African reserve, along with good veterinary care – which can include needle pokes through the bars of a crate – and good training to get into that crate calmly.

An enclosed crate is hardly a rhino’s preferred environment. In South Africa, white rhinos roam mostly on grasslands, where they have wide vistas, big skies, a clear view of the landscape and any predator that dares to approach. There are many stories, told by rhino researchers, of rhinos charging cars and people if startled. In one humorous YouTube video a baby rhino charges a tourist vehicle. Rhinos have long had a reputation for orneriness.

While the reputation is not always deserved by white rhinos, and may be the product of some “reputation drift” from their more ornery cousins, the black rhinos, nothing we know about rhinos in the wild would lead us to expect them to feel at home packed into a crate and shipped abroad. Yet, it happens frequently; rhinos – black, white, Sumatran, Indian – are moved across continents, from zoos to sanctuaries and back. How do they make these long trips around the world?

It starts with hours of human endeavor, mostly sound training methods and a lot of patience.

How to get a rhino get into a crate

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which is responsible for accrediting major zoos like the Nashville Zoo, makes recommendations for how to acclimate animals to the challenges of captive environments. Made up of animal experts, researchers, veterinarians, zookeepers and the like, the AZA recommends using operant conditioning and positive reinforcement – basically, motivating animals towards (treats and fun) rather than away from (pain and punishment).

Anyone who has worked with a dog trainer is probably familiar with clicker training, a common positive reinforcement method also used in zoos. Positive training methods acclimate animals to everything from entering a crate to hands-on veterinary procedures.

If you’ve ever trained an animal counter to its instincts – for example, trained a dog to “stay” as a squirrel scampers by – you can imagine the time and patience it might take to train a savannah-roaming rhino to get into a bedroom-sized crate.

The crates themselves are generally custom-designed for each rhino with enough space for the animal to lie down and get up but not so much space that it could be injured with buffeting. The crate’s design will include some kind of delivery system for food - but food and water will most likely be hand delivered, often by an accompanying veterinarian, as I learned from White Oak veterinarian Dr. Scott Citino.

It’s not unusual for a rhino transported between zoo and homeland to spend 30 hours in a crate before seeing the light of day. To prepare for this, rhinos can spend 2 – 6-weeks training, by way of positive reinforcement and “play,” to acquire a level of comfort entering and staying in the steel reinforced travel crates that will carry them across the thousands of miles.

Journey to the West

A chat with Nashville Zoo’s CEO and president, Rick Schwartz, cleared up some of the particulars about our rhinos’ actual journey, a 3-continent odyssey.

According to Schwartz, Modwani, Norma, Kacie and Nandi flew from South Africa to Istanbul to Miami – over 10,000 air miles. In Miami, US Fish and Wildlife met the girls for their Customs inspections. The rhinos also underwent decontamination to evacuate any pests that may have entered US borders as stowaways on their skin. For the last leg of their journey, nearly another thousand road miles, Schwartz personally traveled to Miami to meet the rhinos and make sure they got to their new home safely.

“We were waiting for them with an air conditioned trailer,” Schwartz said. He and his team had set up choice food and water, and made sure the rhinos had all the comforts of home-in-a-crate.

As Faessler points out, it is a testament to our rhinos’ temperament as well as their training that despite long hours in close quarters, the four made the trip without tranquilization. The AZA recommends tranquilization only in case of safety, but many an antsy black rhino has had to be sedated for safety. Both Schwartz and Citino, who has traveled on planes with rhinos, have learned that pilots do not like an active rhino.

“When the rhino starts to move and get uncomfortable, the pilot can feel it,” Citino reports. “It actually moves the plane.”

Schwartz reported that the training period for our four rhinos on the South African ranch was longer than the 2 – 6 week norm because their journey got delayed. Their travel plans were caught up in a political fracas, one among a continuous stream of wildlife controversies raging in South Africa. As a result, our rhinos had the benefit of a good two months of careful training. The extra exposure to human caretakers and time spent in training paid off in a successful flight, a positive experience with U.S. Customs, and an easy transition to the new home.

“They were just as calm as they could be,” said Schwartz on first meeting the rhinos in Miami. “They did really good.”

When the girls (still basically children at age 4) arrived at the Nashville Zoo, responsibility for their training fell to Jason Faessler, who has traveled as far as Australia to learn his craft from rhino experts.

Rhinos adjust to new life challenges: right angles

As we visit zoo animals, we often forget that a complex ecosphere like the Nashville Zoo, with rhinos and 2,760 other animals from 365 animal species, must also juggle some fantastic economic realities. Any individual animal may eat 75 pounds of food a day (like a giraffe) or 100 pounds a day (times four rhinos). That is why a zoo is also the site of constant fundraising. They share this ongoing need with the conservation organizations that have come to rely on zoos to conduct good research and house “backup” populations.

In addition, Nashville Zoo runs education programs for schools and families, national research, and international conservation. And when Nashville Zoo’s new medical facility opens, it will be the site of world-class veterinary training.

From the four rhinos’ perspective, the zoo must also be prepared to provide stimulation, technically called “enrichments.” But a zoo can also present challenges, things life in the wild doesn’t prepare a rhino to deal with.

Faessler related that our rhinos had some difficulty learning to exit through the chute, a fenced pathway leading them from their nighttime quarters to their daytime grassland. It’s not natural for a rhino to come down a chute and turn a sharp corner, Faessler explained. A right angle is not something they run into on the veldt.

Rhinos have poor eyesight and side-facing eyes, a placement typical of prey species rather than predators. So rhinos have blind spots much like their relative, the horse. To the rhinos, the sharp right turn seemed like a dead-end with a wall, and Faessler’s task was to train them to understand, using only positive reinforcement, that there is something around the corner, and that the something is good to eat.

Seeing rhinos out on their hill on any given day is proof that the training done by Faessler and his team – Amelia Davis, Jennifer Wu, Nikole Edmunds, and Jonathon Hankins – has chalked up a success. It’s a good beginning because an even bigger challenge lies ahead for both the crash and the keepers: breeding.

The next part of the series looks at the future in store for our little crash of rhinos at Nashville Zoo. It also begins a closer look at what the rhinos may have left behind.

A crash in the grass - three four-year-old white rhinos enjoy a dig and a graze at Nashville Zoo.
A crash in the grass - three four-year-old white rhinos enjoy a dig and a graze at Nashville Zoo.
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