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SOS Rhino : In the News: : Articles : Rhinos: Ghosts of our Future
 

  Nan Schaffer, DVM, is one of the leading authorities on rhinoceros reproductive physiology, and the founder of SOS Rhino. Based in Chicago, she has worked with rhinos worldwide for more than 18 years. She is quiet and unassuming, so that people are often surprized to discover that she works with rhinos for a living. Her staff reports that an unofficial rhino poll has named her the rhinos' favorite veterinarian. Because of her willingness to fly at a moment's notice when contacted for help by zoos, American Airlines has designated Dr Schaffer as its favorite frequent flyer. She is the person seen in commercials running with her black veterinarian's bag to catch a plane. Fellow veterinarians and researchers consider her the person "most likely to have a baby rhino named after them". For our first issue of Endangered Species magazine, we are pleased to present a recent interview with Dr Schaffer.

Q: How did you get started with rhinos?
A: 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 for were interested in learning about the fertility of their animals, which led me to my first rhino.
Q: How long have you been working with rhinos?
A: My first job was at the Bronx Zoo in 1981 with a post-doctoral fellowship in reproduction. One of my projects was to collect urine from a female Indian rhino to see if she was cycling. The pair at the zoo was not breeding. I then went to the Mid west, where I worked with three zoos in reproductive research - Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Brookfield (Illinois Zoo), and Milwaukee County Zoo. Milwaukee County Zoo was the one where I focused my work on rhinos. Actually, one particular rhino: Rudy.
Q: Do rhinos have personalities?
A: 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.
Q: What are the other animals you have worked with?
A: 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.
Q: Now are the species of rhinos different from each other?
A: African rhinos are savannah (plains) animals, seeming wary, 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 hairier bodies, bulbous noses and small horns. They're made up of so many incongruous parts, it gives meaning to the statement that they're so ugly, they're cute.
Q: What was different about Rudy?
A: 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 3000 pound (1400 kg) rhino stepping on your foot you can imagine how that can crush it. Well, he ended tip 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 if it was just a friendly reminder about who was really in charge. The saddest day was when he had to be euthanized because of a debilita ting 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 he was saying, " 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.
Q: What was your most "interesting" time with a rhino?
A: 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 into his cage. Here was the biggest rhino I had ever seen, and I was supposed to work out his reproductive problem?
Q: What is required of a researcher to work with rhinos?
A: 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.
Q: Why did you start SOS Rhino?
A: We started it as a means of stimulating awareness of and funding for 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.
Q: What is necessary to save the rhinos?
A: To be in the mind-set that our natural resources are vital to the world's 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',
Q: Do you believe a legal trade can save the animals?
A: Few animals in the world have as great an economic importance as the "good as gold" natural resource of the rhino. This should have been the easiest animal in the world to save. It's one of the top five animals that tourists want to see when they go to Africa. The black market is entrenched, wellfinanced, wellsupported, and has been obviously unaffected by legalities. A wellorganized and well-financed legal source of rhino horn can undercut the competition from the black market and drive down the price. Right now a horn is worth thousands of dollars on the Asian market. Now, the black market gets all the money. A legal trade could monitor the traffic, protect its own "rhino investment", and rhinos would not have to be killed. Others believe that a legal trade would 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.
Q: What can people do to help the rhinos?
A: You can adopt a rhino or a rhino researcher. You can boycott Chinese and Taiwanese goods, as those markets have the greatest traffic in illegal horn. Another problem 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 this illegal trade. We need the laws to be enforced, in the US and in China. My Chinese friends say that the demand for rhino products "is a cultural thing". My response: "So was slavery". What are they going to do for their aches and pains and imagined sexual prowess when all the rhinos have gone?
Q: Do you believe in a rhino Jurassic Park for the future?
A: Sure, we can freeze the semen, freeze the embryos, 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 be impregnated 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?
Q: Why are you so dedicated to your work for rhinos?
A: One of the great tragedies of the twenty- first 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 cannot " build" nature. We can build another bridge, paint another picture, but we cannot make another rhino. Look into a really wild animal's eyes. When the wild things have gone, we will lose our place, our way; for whose eyes will we look into to find our humility, our humanity?
Q: Where do you see the rhinos 10, 25, 50 years from now?
A: In big, natural, nature preserves, protected by an international army, then everything in the whole nature preserve will be protected. However, in order to achieve this, 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 Asian and Yemeni markets would finally realize the value of what they have destroy ed, 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 under standing 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 lives as it did mine.

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