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SOS Rhino : In the News : Rhino reality bites at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo

Rhino reality bites at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo

  By Jonathan Lis
Haaretz International

Wed January 19, 2005

Officials at the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem are worried: Shalom, the 25-year-old White Rhino, has been under heavy mental strain for months brought on by a troubled relationship with his cagemate, 16-year-old Carmi.

Ever sine he arrived at the zoo, about a year ago, Shalom has been the object of violent assaults and insinuated threats by Carmi, who takes the trouble every few months to "remind him" that he's the dominant male.

In an effort to resolve the problem, the worried staff decided to place a video camera in the rhinos' shared quarters to see whether Shalom is having trouble sleeping at night or eating dinner, and whether Carmi is provoking him when the two of them are shut inside the enclosure. The zoo's staff still can't say whether the stress Shalom is under is natural or harmful to his quality of life.

"In the first days after Shalom and Carmi began living together, everything was fine," said Liat Hanson, director of the herbivore department at the zoo. "But one day, a few weeks later, when I stayed to wash down the place, a fight suddenly erupted between them. Carmi and Shalom stood horn to horn. Carmi led the fight and pushed Shalom four or five laps around the lake. Whoever saw the struggle from outside thought the world was coming to an end. Carmi simply creamed Shalom, and hoisted him in the air with his horn. Immediately after the battle Shalom ran into the water. That's his therapy. At the end of every fight he enters the lake to calm down."

The latest battle took place two months ago, when Carmi nearly succeeded in yanking out Shalom's eye. Thanks to exhausting training, the zoo personnel were able to persuade Shalom to cooperate with them and managed to administer eye drops every evening and clean the deep cut under his eye.

"We have a special and pretty rare situation in our zoo," said zoologist Noam Werner. "We have only two male rhinos. Tanda, our last female, who couldn't be in heat because she was solitary, was moved last September to the Safari and has been seen mating there. In exchange, so we wouldn't have only a lone rhinoceros, we received Shalom, who had been rejected by the rhinos at the Safari."

Shalom, who failed to make friends at the Safari, also had trouble forming social ties with Carmi. But at the Biblical Zoo they had to learn to live together. Every night the two rhinos enter a single house, and sleep - in separate cages - a meter apart. Every morning they go out to the big yard and try to keep their distance. Carmi is the dominant and energetic one: he chases after the zebras and giraffes, marks the territory with scent, and conducts himself in a relatively quiet manner. Shalom, by contrast, maneuvers in a much noisier and panicky manner, does not mark territory and takes advantage of a much smaller area of the yard. Zoo staff are hoping to learn through the video tapes what's bothering Shalom.

"We're trying to check how the two rhinos are sleeping, how much they're eating and when they go eat dinner," said Werner. "We want to see whether there's a connection between their mental peace and the number of times they wake up at night, and whether their feeding is continuous."

Staff also intend to examine the male rhinos' hormonal condition, and study the sounds they emit.

"As a modern zoo, we are committed to providing our animals with maximal well-being," Werner added. "We're not a circus, nor a place for entertainment, but rather are working for nature preservation and the animals' welfare."

Staff members believes they will be able to decide after this research how to handle Shalom and defuse the rhino dispute.

"Perhaps it will be enough for us to build a dividing wall to block both their scents and noise, thereby decreasing Shalom's stress," said Werner. "Maybe we'll add a gate, so the pair doesn't enter into dangerous proximity. Maybe we'll discover that Shalom is getting beat up like every other inferior rhinoceros and that he's fine and will get over it on his own."

If none of this does the trick, the zoo expects it will have no choice but to find a new home for one of the two males.

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