What’s the equivalent of having a case of the “Mondays” as a zookeeper? How about accidentally throwing poop out of the truck window and being disappointed about it? Yup, this was my day last week. My job at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is anything but typical, and the mishaps are always out of the ordinary. When you ask a keeper how his or her day was, be prepared—we don’t hold back! You never know what kind of gory details we’ll share with you.
Once a week, we strategically collect fecal samples on all five greater one-horned rhino females and submit them to the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research for hormonal analysis. These samples are really hard to get, but they provide tons of information about the rhinos’ reproductive patterns and help us determine which is pregnant, and when we should expect a baby rhino! (See Rhinos: Sounds of Romance.)
It may sound crazy that these samples are so hard to come by. Rhino poop is huge, and there’s a lot of it, but there’s a trick to collecting a single sample from a group that uses a communal dung pile. This pile is called a midden, and rhinos use it as a message station; they investigate the pile and then defecate in the same spot. While doing this, they root through the pile with their horn, scrape their hind feet, and then spread scent by walking through it and dispersing it with their feet. The Safari Park rhinos use a midden, and they often line up and defecate one after the other. If you’re not on your game, it can be impossible to identify and collect even just one sample, let alone all five female samples, from this group of seven rhinos.
The ill-fated fecal samples in the rhinos’ carrot bucket
Anyway, I was on a roll collecting samples. The group had spread out in the exhibit, so I was guaranteed to get samples from at least a few of them, if not all five that day. I already had two, and without thinking anything of it, I put the small sample cups into a bucket of carrots in the passenger seat, like I usually do. I spotted the other rhino girls across the exhibit and hurried over to them. I pulled up to a midden and called them to the truck. They walked over and some of them went to the pile while the rest came over and ransacked my truck! They yanked feed bags off the back, stole food from the tubs of goodies, and tried to stick their heads in the windows!
One of the younger girls, Sundari, investigated the pile and provided a sample. Great! I was ready to drive closer and pick it up before another rhino could ruin it, but first I had to get the rest of the rhinos away from my truck so I could drive. Instinctively, I grabbed a handful of carrots from the bucket and carelessly threw them out the window for the rhinos to chase. Greater one-horned rhinos love food, and this method usually works, but as soon as the carrots went sailing off into the exhibit, a small plastic cup caught my eye—I had tossed the sample right out the window with the carrots! Shoot! It landed only a few feet away, but I was surrounded by thousands of pounds of rhinoceros. I had no choice but to stay in my truck. I decided to maneuver the truck into position right over the sample cup to protect it.
The rhinos seemed particularly hungry that day and weren’t falling for my scattered carrot trick; they chose to feed from the truck buffet instead. Hmm. I had to get more creative, but as I was brainstorming, Bhopu, our 10-year-old male, lumbered over to the midden and began to…poop! He was ruining Sundari’s sample. I had to make a snap decision: stay and protect the sample under my truck or get closer to the midden to retrieve Sundari’s sample.
I figured the tiny sample cup wouldn’t attract much attention, so I momentarily abandoned it attempting to save Sundari’s sample. I sped forward and heard a crunch—oops! Oh well; I was committed, so I proceeded to the midden. Unfortunately, I was too late. Bhopu ruined Sundari’s sample, and I had driven over the other one. I was defeated by a bunch of hungry rhinos and my own uncoordinated efforts.
The rhinos grew bored with me and wandered away. I got out to retrieve the squished cup, and ta-da! Those cups are pretty tough; the cup was broken, but the sample was fine. All was not lost. Now, on with the rest of the day!
Whew! And that was just my morning.
Jonnie Capiro is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.