The Zoo’s Girls In Science program started out our spring semester with a Behind-the-Scenes visit to meet Gram, the Indian rhino (see previous blog, It’s That Time Again). We typically start each semester with an animal visit of some kind, so this term was no exception.
We met at school right after the final bell, then quickly made our way over to the Zoo. From the gate, we made a beeline to the rhino enclosure, then made our way into the back area for some background information and to see some fascinating biofacts.
We learned that there are currently five species of rhinos: black rhinos and white rhinos, both found in Africa, Indian rhinos from northern India, and Javan and Sumatran rhinos, from Java and Sumatra, of course. All five species are endangered due to poaching, with habitat loss severely affecting them, as well. Some rhinos have only one horn (Indian and Javan) while others have two (black, white, and Sumatran) and all are poached because of those horns. Rhino horns are used by some cultures for aphrodisiacs, traditional medicines, daggers, and for ornamental purposes.
Gram, like most Zoo animals, has been trained to respond to commands that help his keepers to care for him. He can open his mouth, back up, lie down, present his feet, and stand still for blood draws. (I keep waiting for ” roll over” but probably won’t get to see that one!) The very first skill he needed to learn, though, was to target. This means that he will touch his upper lip to a target that his keepers present””in Gram’s case it’s usually a swimming pool float attached to a broomstick. But one of his trainers has trained him to target to something else, and in so doing has revealed the fact that Gram has a very special talent–he is the only rhino in the world that can PAINT! (Read a profile about Gram and his talent.)
Grams’ keeper, Laura, trained him to touch his upper lip to a canvas, then taught him to let her put tempera paint on that same lip. When she asks him to target that painted lip to a canvas”¦voila! Rhino painting!
The girls didn’t get to see this occur, but they did get to see some of the artwork Gram has done. When I held up a picture and mentioned that it was a rhino painting, one of the girls said, ” It doesn’t look like a rhino to me.” After I explained that, no, it’s not a rhino, it was painted by a rhino,” she was more impressed!
The girls decided the best part of the visit was getting to feed the big boy, who has a personality much like a golden retriever’s. He was happy to take apples and yams from us, and always seems to enjoy the personal attention and pats that come his way. The girls all posed for photos, of course, and we left at the end of the afternoon feeling amazed at the opportunity to have interacted with not only a critically endangered species, but one with such an engaging personality. Thanks, Gram, for being such a wonderful ambassador for your species!
Cindy Spiva-Evans is an educator at the San Diego Zoo.
Girls In Science is a program for Roosevelt Middle School girls which creates science-based experiences with professional women at the San Diego Zoo. The program is funded through the generosity of the Wells Fargo Foundation.
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