Inevitably, when patrons walk through the many animal exhibits at Zoo Miami, they will stop and “ooh” and “aah” at two of our most impressive animals – the powerful-looking Indian and Black rhinos, with their massive bodies, armor-like exteriors and imposing stature. Not only are they beautiful to look at, they are quite interesting and different from each other.
The Indian Rhino
The Indian rhino, also known as the Greater One-horned Rhinoceros is native to India and Nepal. Both genders have a single black horn which develops at six years of age and is used for protection, scent-marking, and charging. In the wild, they rub it against trees to sharpen it, while in captivity, they usually rub the horn down into a nub.
Although it has poor eyesight, it possesses excellent senses of hearing and smell. It can weigh from 5,000 to more than 6,500 pounds, ranges between 5’7” – 6’7” tall and is approximately 13 feet long. An excellent swimmer, it can also run up to 25 miles per hour.
Grazers, they eat grass, branches, fruits, and trees. They also do what is known as “flehmening” – when the rhino comes across female urine, examines it, curls back his upper lips in order to expose his vomeronasal organ, and can tell from the drawn urine scent the hormonal level of the female and whether she is ready to breed.
The Indian rhino’s natural enemies are tigers and humans, who hunt it for sport or to use its horn. Dominant males also fight among themselves, resulting in high mortality rates. Surprisingly, the Indian rhino fights with its incisors, not its horn. It is also very aggressive toward the female during courtship.
And now, let’s meet Zoo Miami’s four fascinating Indian rhinos:
• Mohan – male; in his 40s; one of the oldest rhinos in captivity; caught in the wild
• Suru – male; nine years old; can be seen if you take a behind-the-scenes tour; is used for breeding; came from the San Diego Zoo
• Jaunpur (“Johnny”) – male; 20 years old; weighs 4,700 pounds; the star of our Rhino Encounter Station; came from the San Diego Zoo
• Kalu – female; nine years old; 3,400 pounds; came from the Bronx Zoo
Our Indian rhinos are no lightweights. They eat a whopping 100 pounds of food a day – one bale of hay, 20 – 25 pounds of pelleted food, and produce. For enrichment, they get browse – mahogany, rosewood, rubber tree, ficus leaves and branches, avocadoes, and mangoes, all of which are found at Zoo Miami. They also enjoy playing with a 50-pound boomer ball and love to go for a swim in their respective exhibit’s pools.
The keepers work very closely with the rhinos but never have unprotected contact with them. A system of heavy metal swinging doors keep them apart. Keeper Kim Jacobs states that, “although keepers and their animals form a strong bond, we keepers need to have a healthy respect for these animals no matter how much we love them. After all, they are not pets, can become aggressive at any given moment and cause great harm.”
Indian rhinos vocalize and keepers can tell what the rhinos are trying to tell them with each distinct sound. Kim explains some of the vocalizations. “Air breaking, the most common, represents frustration; grunting means aggression; and when females are in heat, they constantly emit a high-pitched sound.”
Zoo Miami has just opened a Rhino Encounter Station, where patrons will have the rare experience of touching, brushing and smelling a rhino. Johnny, the star, has been undergoing training for three months by means of audio cues to go to the encounter area and lean against the metal fence. Training started with a ringing bell and he is being given browse. Although rhinos are not very intelligent but easy to train, Johnny soon learned that when he heard the bell, going to the designated spot would earn him a treat. Hey, who wouldn’t learn quickly if a treat were the end result?
You’ll notice that Johnny does not have a horn. He has rubbed it down to a nub by marking his territory. In the wild, rhinos rub them into a sharp point to use them as defense and other purposes.
A funny, or maybe not – depending on where you’re standing – characteristic of the male Indian rhino is that it urinates backward to mark its territory. So when you visit our rhino encounter at Zoo Miami, be cognizant that if Johnny decides to mark at that moment, you may need a change of clothes! But we’re sure you’ll have a good laugh!
The Black Rhino
The Black rhino, which has four subspecies ranging historically throughout sub-Saharan Africa, is not really black but more gray/brown/white, depending on the soil condition and its wallowing behavior. Approximately 11 – 12 feet long, 55 – 67 inches high, and weighing between 1,800 – 3,100 pounds, it runs at speeds up to 35 miles per hour. It has two keratin horns on its skull (keratin is the material that makes up human hair and nails) which are used for defense, breaking through big branches to feed, and instilling fear in its enemies. Its long, prehensile upper lip, much like an elephant’s or a tapir’s allows it to grasp leaves and small branches.
While not blessed with good eyesight, they make up for it by relying on their excellent senses of smell and hearing. They are not territorial, but can become extremely aggressive and attack if they feel threatened or become confused.
Unfortunately, the Black rhino is almost extinct as a result of loss of habitat and its only natural predators – lions, hyenas and poachers. Its horns are sought after for use in traditional Chinese medicine and it is claimed they cure fevers, act as an aphrodisiac, and help with fertility problems. While there is no medical proof for any of this, the practice has sadly resulted in an enormous reduction in the Black rhino population. In the Middle East, the horn is used to make hand-carved handles for daggers used in various ceremonial events. These handles are considered status symbols in and can cost anywhere from a staggering $15,000 to $75,000!
Toshi – male; imported from Hiroshima, Japan, in the late 80s and is the father of Circe’s unborn baby
Eddie – male; 11 years old; born in Cincinnati and owned by Peace River
Circe – female; 10 years old; pregnant and due in August; born at the Riverbanks Zoo and owned by the L.A. Zoo
Jello – male; six years old; born at Zoo Miami
Their daily diet consists of one bucket of pellets, one bag of produce and a couple of big flakes of hay. For enrichment, they receive ficus leaves and branches, banana peels, rubber tree, mahogany, and a boomer ball, which they love to roll down into the moat.
Black rhino Area Manager Kim Harp, who was worked with the rhinos 3½ years, laughs when she talks about the rhinos’ vocalizations. “They squeak like a little toy. They do this when they are calling out to each other or to the keeper. It’s hysterical to see this huge animal have this little squeak come out of it.” Other vocalizations include growling and roaring when they feel aggressive or upset, and huffing when they are excited.
Circe, who is pregnant, is more “high strung, sensitive to her environment and timid than our males,” says Kim. Behaviors during labor include pacing, contractions, pushing, and vocalizing in the form of squeaking. And now that a new black rhino is due in August, how does Kim feel about it? “This will be Circe’s second baby and I am very excited to be having another black baby rhino running around soon.”
Although there are seven keepers tending to them, the rhinos don’t really have a favorite, although they can tell when someone new is around.
And while Indian rhinos urinate backward to mark their territory, they have been upstaged by the black rhinos. How? Well, not only do they urinate backward, but then defecate and kick their dung to spread it around in order to mark their territory.
So, should you ever come close to a rhino, it is suggested you either get the heck out of the way fast, or don’t go behind him or her at all!