Dr. Nan Schaffer, D.V.M. is one, if not the, premiere authority on rhinoceros reproductive physiology. She has worked with rhinos for over 15 years, and her home base is located in Chicago, Illinois, USA.
Quiet and unassuming, everyone is always surprised to find this woman works with rhinos for a living. Dr. Schaffer has been nominated by various rhinos around the country, and internationally, as being their favorite veterinarian (this is an unofficial poll). Because of her willingness to fly at a moment's notice when contacted by zoos to come work with their rhinos, American Airlines has designated Dr. Schaffer as their most favorite frequent flyer. She is the one you may have seen running for the plane with her black veterinary medical bag. Fellow veterinarians and researchers consider her the "one most likely to have a baby rhino named after them."
With her sense of humor, knowledge, and history of working with the rhinos, it is apparent that she remains one of the most staunch defenders of the rhinoceros species.
How did you get started with rhinos?
That's a question my parents always asked me. When I graduated from Texas A&M Vet school, I specialized in fertility evaluation of male animals. The zoos I subsequently worked at were interested in the learning about the fertility of their animals, which led me to my first rhino.
How long have you been working with rhinos?
My first job was at the Bronx Zoo in 1981 in a fellowship (post doctorate) in Reproduction. One of my projects was to collect urine from a female Indian rhino to see if she was cycling. The pair was not breeding. Went from there to Milwaukee. Actually brought back to the Midwest by Tom Meehan of Lincoln Park Zoo [now of Brookfield Zoo, Brookfield, Illinois] in Chicago for a reproduction program that involved 3 zoos: Lincoln Park, Brookfield, and Milwaukee County Zoo. Milwaukee County zoo was the one that got me involved with rhinos.
Do they have their own personalities?
They all display what appears to be fear, anger, frustration, patience, impatience, curiosity, and happiness to varying degrees which make up all their different personalities. Happiness is a hard one since there is no specific action for happiness. I'd say happiness for a rhino is falling down in ecstasy from a good scratch on their stomach or back, enjoying fruit or vegetable treats, or blissfully wallowing in mud.
What are the other animals you have worked with?
In reproductive work I've worked with orangutans, camels, gorillas, Wanderoos [Lion-tailed macaques], and Indian lions. As a clinical vet, I've dealt with medical problems of gila monsters, Indian lions, proboscis monkeys, seals, dolphins, buffalo, cranes, bears...it runs the gamut.
How are the rhinos different from other animals you have worked with?
I've become closer to them and been able to understand them more fully because of the repeated contact and work with them.
How are the species of rhinos different from each other?
African rhinos are savannah (plains) animals, seeming weary, flight-prone, nervous. The Asian rhinos are grassland (marsh) animals and are slower, calmer, and shy, but Sumatran rhinos have the most personality. It may be because the ones I've met are not used to captivity, they still have an "untamed" curiosity. The Sumatrans are more vocal, meaning they make more sounds, than the other species. They're the smallest, have more hairy bodies, bulbous noses, and small horns. They're made up of so many incongruous parts, it gives meaning to the statement, "they're so ugly, they're cute."
What was different about your first rhino, Rudy?
He was a very big boy and I was able to work with him without any kind of restraint. Although he could squash me, he always moved carefully. He never threatened me by throwing his head, like a horse. One time he did almost step on me. If you can picture a 3,000 pound rhino stepping on your foot you can imagine how that can crush a foot, well, he ended up just resting his foot on mine. He wouldn't move his foot, I couldn't move mine, and I couldn't go anywhere until he let me go. I couldn't tell if he got a kick out of it or it was just a friendly reminder about who was really in charge.
The saddest day was the day he had to be euthanized because of a debilitating illness. I came into his exhibit area to spend some time with him and he got up slowly because he was feeling so sick. He came over to me and proceeded to nudge me around his pen until I was out the door. It was as if to say I should "go on now, there are other rhinos that need attention." Rudy started me on the road to working with rhinos. He was one of a kind though.
What was your most "interesting" time with a rhino?
When I was at the Bronx I had the chance to watch the courtship of a pair of Indian rhinos. The male would chase the female and throw her, this two-ton animal into the air! That was all I had to go by when I was called in by the Milwaukee County Zoo to work on the reproductive problems of Rudy, their male Indian rhino. I remember sticking my head in his cage. There was the biggest rhino I had ever seen, and I was supposed to work out his reproductive problem?
Another interesting story is the Sedgwick County Zoo rhinos Bibi and Eugene. Will a new Rudy come along?
What is required to work with rhinos?
Definitely cooperation of the rhinos, zoo directors, veterinarians, researchers, and zoo keepers. Good, interested, and concerned people who care about rhinos are a requirement. In the scheme of things, we're working with a very small, captive population of rhinos. Cooperation is vital. It also helps to have a chute in place, to keep the rhinos safe and sound while we work with them. And if there is no chute, well, a good pair of tennis shoes and a fast exit route are pretty handy!
What is required of a researcher to work with rhinos?
Patience, patience, patience; an interest in the animal, a willingness to battle the odds; a perseverance to work around the politics; and certainly an ability to savor the small victories.
Why did you start SOS Rhino?
We started it as an avenue to stimulate awareness and funding of research. I thought more work needed to be done in certain research areas that were more immediate and necessary to maintain and manage the animals we currently have.
What is necessary to save the rhinos?
To be in the mind set that our natural resources are vital to the worlds existence. To make people realize that nature, the wild, open spaces, is as valuable to us as oil.Will we ever get to the point of calling out the military to protect our wild spaces and animals as we do to protect our oil interests?
Do you believe a legal trade can save the animals?
Few animals in the world have an economic incentive to match the "good as gold" natural resource as the rhino. This should have been the easiest animal in the world to save. It's one of the top 5 animals that tourists want to see when they go to Africa. The black market is entrenched, well-financed, well-supported, and has been obviously unaffected by legalities. A well-organized and financed legal source can act as enforcement agents, undercut the competition from the black market and drive down the price. Right now a horn is worth thousands of dollars on the oriental markets. Now, the black market gets all the money. A legal trade could monitor the traffic, protect their own "rhino investment," and a rhino would not have to be killed. Others believe that a legal trade will only help the black market survive by creating an easily accessible trade route. The pros and cons are an ongoing debate in the international community.
What can people do?You can adopt a rhino or a rhino researcher.
You can boycott China and Taiwan goods, as that is one of the most highly trafficked areas of illegal horn trade. Another area not as well known is the one in the United States, on both East and West coasts. Write Congress, write the Senate, write the President.... We need more severe penalties for those trafficking in illegal trade. We need the laws to be enforced, here and in China. My Chinese friends say that the consumption of rhinos "is a cultural thing," but I've replied "so was slavery." What are they going to do for their aches and pains and imagined sexual prowess when all the rhinos are gone?
Do you believe in a Jurassic Park?
Sure we can freeze the semen, freeze the embryo's, but that's not the only answer. No pun intended, but putting all our eggs in one basket never works and is a major gamble with endangered species. We need to save their habitat or what wild, genetically diverse rhinos will be left to impregnate with this frozen, genetic material? Are we going to just try to build a rhino we can keep in a zoo, or will we bring them back into a world in which they can survive?
Why DO you do this for rhinos?One of the great tragedies of the 21st century will be humanity's homogeneity. Everywhere, everything will be the same. That which we could not tame or imitate will be gone. No matter how hard we try, we can not "build" nature. We can build another bridge, paint another picture, but we can not make another rhino. Look into a really wild animal's eyes. When the wild things are gone, we will lose our place, our way; for who's eyes will we look into to find our humility, our humanity?
Where do you see the rhinos 10, 25, 50 years from now?
In big, natural, nature preserves, protected by an international army, then everything in the whole nature preserve will be protected.However, in order to get to this place, it would mean the world would have to overcome some huge obstacles; that a lot of people would finally agree to act together; that the oriental and Yemen markets would finally realize the value of what they have destroyed; and the black market middle-men and higher-ups are arrested for their stockpiles of rhino horn.
I want our children's children to have the experience of understanding and knowing a rhino. That they will get to see it, hear it, and maybe if they're lucky enough, to touch it and have it change their life as it did mine.
Copyright 1997 by SOS Rhino.
Interview conducted by Julie A. Kreiner