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Monday, August 4, 2014

What a Rhino Feels Like

When my wonderful husband saw that a certain amazing zoo in our area was doing "rhino encounters," in which the visitor "gets up close and personal" with two beautiful, healthy, good tempered white rhinos, he did the right thing and scheduled it for us. We saved up our money, because a life-changing experience like this isn't cheap. That's okay, because half the money goes toward upkeep and half toward International Rhino Foundation programs. We weren't sure what "up close and personal" really meant, but we dared to hope that we could touch them. My husband and I have seen many YouTube videos that confirm the idea that most rhinos love to be petted and scratched, but were sure the zoo would only allow it if it was okay with these particular rhinos (and the insurance companies!).

We Bowled for Rhinos at Franklin Park! 
Shortly after making these arrangements, we went to a great talk at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston by Bill Konstant of the IRF. Bill's passion for rhinos was inspiring, and when we spoke with him about this impending "encounter," he showed us pictures of the first people who had done it... and Yes! They got to pet the rhinos! From then on, we referred to our August 2 reservation as when "we get to pet the rhinos."

This experience was so much more than I could have dreamed. Both my husband and I were moved to tears. We were so close that our pictures don't look very artsy, but Betsey Brewer, zoo co-owner and coordinator of this event, kindly stepped back and got pictures of us looking as if we were in a zoo and rhinos were visiting us!

The bars are for the protection of keepers and, now, the visitors, because happy rhinos like to show their affection by bumping into each other. Little humans couldn't take much of that kind of love. The rhinos also rub up against the posts and give themselves a good scratch, as you can see by the flaking paint.

It had been raining hard earlier in the day and other visitors had cancelled their rhino encounters. We were joined only by people who worked at the zoo. Betsey brought some of their nutritious hay with her, but as soon as they heard people inside the bars, both rhinos came out of the barn where they had been resting, just to get some attention. There was no preamble. They came right to us, like sailing ships with a smooth and premeditated gait. We had been informed where they liked to be touched, but I was so amazed at being so close to these giant beauties that I had to take a moment to collect myself.


The rain was kind to us that day. Not only did it let up in time for our encounter, but the damp and cool temperature meant that the rhinos had not been rolling in mud all day. They don't have sweat glands, so that's how they keep cool on a hot day. I had wondered if I would get dirty doing this, but these were the cleanest rhinos I've probably ever been in the presence of.

The two rhinos, Thelma and Louise, came to the zoo directly from South Africa three years ago, when the previous longtime rhino residents had passed away of old age. They are now about six years old, so the zoo board is in discussions about how and when to breed them.

Betsey told an interesting story. When Louise was in transit at the port authority in New York, she was spooked by the inspectors and got her horn caught in one of the vent holes in her container. She was so riled that she ripped her horn right out! It would be like a human ripping out a fingernail. Her face looked rather concave for some time, but now the horn has grown back stronger than ever. It seems to be more sturdily in place than her companion's horn now.

What does a rhino feel like? Good. Here, on the back, the skin is inches thick and a little bit rough. We were told we could slap them pretty hard back there because they don't feel it otherwise, but I'm sure I was too gentle. It seemed too disrespectful to hit them!

The back has interestingly invisible bristly hairs that contributed to the rugged texture.

Behind the ears, on the other hand, the skin is much thinner and more sensitive. It feels like it has a dry outside, but just underneath, it's soft and warm!

Watch the flicking action! 
Back there, you also get a sense of how stiff their ears are. They flip back and forth on a hinge, but above that, it's all cartilage, no muscle.

The horns are compacted strands of keratin (a biomatter found in most mammals, and in human hair and fingernails). Rhinos like to rub their horns on rocks to shape them, and Thelma had been sharpening hers to a nice point. The rubbing is why you can see hairlike strands puffing out around the middle in these pictures. The horns don't feel like anything special. Touching the horn, you might never know there was such a wonderful creature attached to it. I emphasize: a rhino's horn is of no use to anyone but a rhino.

In all the excitement, I never managed to touch around the nose, but my husband says it's similar to behind the ears. Bigger wrinkles, for sure!

They have strong neck muscles to hold up those big heads! 
White rhinos have a unique way of eating. With no front teeth, they suck the food back with their wide lips and grind it with their molars. Near the end, Betsey put the hay out for Thelma and Louise to eat and we got to listen to them slurping and enjoying their meal for a while.

And then it was over.

We left with a profound sense of peace. I'm not sure how long we were with Thelma and Louise because time stopped and nothing else was important. It was a joyful meditation that made us both effortlessly arrive at what matters most in the world. Anyone with stress issues should pet a nice rhino. Thelma and Louise produced only two anxieties in us: 1. What can we ever do for the rest of our lives that is so fulfilling? 2. How can we save all the beautiful species of rhino from human greed and stupidity?

So I look at my hands now, these hands that have been privileged to touch two lovely creatures with timeless souls. I ask, what can these hands do to make the world better?