How to Train Your Rhino

This post written by Tim Junker & Jessica Sigle

A rhino opens his mouth for keepers to take a look inside.

The Houston Zoo’s three rhinos came to us straight out of Africa without knowing any trained behaviors or even their own names.  It became critically important to get these animals to at least come over to us when called, otherwise no training could proceed.  It didn’t take long for us to find that alfalfa was their favorite treat.  Many other captive rhinos enjoy more trainer-friendly chopped produce items such as apples, carrots, or sweet potatoes, but ours just wanted the hay.  Once they associated us with alfalfa, we quickly made friends.

Some of the most important behaviors that these animals needed to learn were simple body positions.  I’m not talking “downward facing dog” or the “lotus pose,” but instead “come here,” “lean in,” and “back up.”  These uncomplicated maneuvers offer keepers the ability to examine the rhinos from any angle upon request and treat any potential wounds.  This is very important for animals that spend some of their free time sparring with each other using their sharp horns.

A keeper engaging in target training.

A behavior that we find to be of great use is to “target.”  This is used by many animals all over the zoo to bring them to a certain location on cue.  Often a target is a ball on a stick or some variation of that, which the animal is trained to touch a part of their body to (usually their nose) in exchange for a reward.  With this behavior trained, the rhinos can be moved anywhere in the exhibit or holding area that the keepers can reach a target to.

Keepers drawing blood from a rhino’s ear.

With the basics now trained, we are able to move on with other, more complex behaviors; such as blood draws.  For many people this is the moment they dread most in a doctor’s visit.  For the rhinos, a slight ear twitch is usually the only reaction that they have.  Twice a week, we collect blood from the two female rhinos and twice a month for the male.  Our rhinos are still young, so we collect the blood to monitor the progesterone levels of the females so we will know when they begin to cycle and become receptive to breeding.  Blood is collected from their large ear veins into glass viles and examined in the zoo’s vet clinic or sent off to an outside lab for more specialized tests.  If any of the rhinos appear to be ill, we can easily collect blood to check for infection.

Another behavior currently in training is to get the rhinos to accept a toenail trim.  In general, rhinos need little in the way of foot work, but there may be occasions down the road which will require us to address an immediate concern.  We hope that once trained, the rhinos will lift up each of their feet and place them on a block so that the nails can be filed and the bottom of the foot can be examined.  With some of the basic  behaviors already trained, the rhinos will likely be very accepting of these more complex behaviors.

The relationships that we build during  these  many training sessions makes day-to-day care of the animals far simpler. The benefits gained from cooperative animals makes for a virtually stress free environment.  On September 22 and 23, the Houston Zoo is celebrating World Rhino Days.  We invite you to come join us to learn more about how we train and care for these amazing animals and what you can do to help these endangered species.

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