Wild About - On the rhino rounds
They may come with a grumpy reputation, but Whipsnade’s rhinos are anything but. Zookeeper Charlotte Lancey tells us what it’s like to look after not one, but two herds of two-tonne rhinos – and why it’s her dream job
Last Christmas ZSL Whipsnade Zoo welcomed a pink-skinned, baby greater one-horned rhino – perfectly formed but for the tiny bump above her nose where, eventually, a horn will grow. Named Zhiwa, she’s already almost the size of a pygmy hippo, full of energy, and a hit with visitors. And she’s got a soft spot with keepers too.
“I remember the time exactly, she was born at 5:02am,” says rhino keeper Charlotte Lancey. “At first she was like her mum’s little shadow, so it was really difficult to get a proper look at her. Now she’s really playful, charging around and exploring. She loves the wind, although I’m not sure she knows what it is.
Even keepers from across the Zoo make excuses to pop by. “I’ll be trying to get my cleaning done but all I want to do is go and see her,” says Charlotte. “In the first month after she was born, even if I wasn’t working that day, I would message our team WhatsApp group to ask how she was doing.”
Charlotte grew up in nearby Hemel Hempstead and has been coming to the Zoo since she was young. An obsession with TV programme Wild at Heart as a child meant there was never anything else she wanted to do apart from work with animals: “Mum says it was all I would ever go on about.”
But it took six years of volunteering at Whipsnade and part-time roles before she could secure her dream job on the Zoo’s large hoofstock team. “Volunteering is the most important part,” says Charlotte. “Get your foot in the door and gain some experience.”
After starting on the birds team on a work experience placement she decided to try something new and volunteered one day a week with the Africa team. “That was it, I just knew. These were the animals I had grown up in love with, and something inside me just said ‘this is what I want to do.’”
So what’s it like to work with a childhood favourite that weighs up to two tonnes?
I have time for a quick cuppa and then it’s off to Whipsnade in the car. Keepers get in for 8am and, after changing into our uniforms and a briefing from our team leader, we set off into the Zoo to get started on the morning chores.
My first job with the white rhinos is to get them out of bed, give them a breakfast of fresh hay and special pellets, and send them out into the paddock for the day. Our female rhinos Tuli, Mikumi, Clara and Bertha, love to sleep in together – we often come in to them lying in a line on their straw bed, heads and horns resting on each other’s backs. Bertha, our newest rhino, arrived from Denmark in 2017 and it took her a little while to be accepted by the others, but she’s so happy to be part of the group now.
Once they’re all outside – which can take quite a bit of encouragement on rainy days – it’s time to clean the barn. I’d say that about 80% of my day involves dealing with poo in some way or another, but I love it! I’ve always been outdoorsy, into mud and getting stuck in – I love the hard work that goes into looking after big animals. Everything is just bigger, and rhino poo is up there with the biggest! But they are actually toilet trained, which does make my job a bit easier. They won’t poo in their bed and have a special area of the barn where they will go to do their business in the night.
You might not believe it, but you can train a rhino! In fact, they’re more responsive than some of our big cats. A cheetah who isn’t hungry might think ‘not today thank you’ and refuse to go along with what you’re asking them to do, but rhinos are very food motivated and will never turn down a snack. Which I can relate to – if I know there’s a biscuit, I’m there. Training is an important part of getting all our Zoo animals to respond to their keepers and means we can do medical examinations or take blood samples without having to anaesthetise or go in the enclosure with them. The greater one-horned rhinos, like our male Hugo (to the right), are naturally a bit more inquisitive, and are all target trained to follow a big stick with a tennis ball on the end.
Our big male, Hugo, suffers with bad feet from time to time and he’s trained to present his back feet for inspection. We walk him up to the top of his paddock, then ask him to back up to the edge of the enclosure. Then we touch his back leg and he pops it through the bars for us to have a look at. He also gets quite dry skin so we often give him a spa treatment. We use the tennis-ball-target to get him to come up to the side of his enclosure and then rub him down with mud. Rhinos naturally love to cover themselves in mud, it keeps them cool in the summer and protects their skin like sun block.
Tucked in for the night
We get the rhinos in for their dinner and ready for bed at about 5pm in the summer, an hour before our shift ends. Our male white rhino, Nsiswa, sleeps by himself and we often separate one female from the group so she can spend the night by herself too. Come morning, it’s a really useful way of collecting urine and faecal samples so we can keep track of their health.
Once they’re in the barn, they get two more scoops of pellets each, which we scatter on the floor. You couldn’t give it to them in a bucket, they’d destroy it and you’d come in the next morning to buckets flying around the room, or stuck on their horns!
After a long day it’s easy to forget how special this job is, but not for long. A rhino will walk past, and I’ll think to myself “Wow, I actually work with rhinos.” There’s a real sense of responsibility too, working with such rare animals that are so highly prized for their horns by the illegal wildlife trade. It’s upsetting to think about: I work with these rhinos everyday, they’re like a family, and yet someone is out there mutilating them, just for a bit of horn.
Meeting the public, that’s when it really sinks in that I do this for a living. The visitors who come to feed Hugo on the Keeper for a Day experience are so in awe of him – and I get to do this every day. This place has definitely taken over my life, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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