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SOS Rhino : In the News : 101lbs.? 19,000 lbs.? Weigh in!

101lbs.? 19,000 lbs.? Weigh in!

  By DEBBIE MESSINA, The Virginian-Pilot
© July 14, 2005

NORFOLK — How much does a middle-aged rhinoceros weigh?

It sounds like the opener to a bad joke, but Virginia Zoo officials are not joking.

They’re asking visitors to guess the weights of the zoo’s two hefty white rhinos: Rufus, 33, and Alfred , 37. The white rhino is the second-largest land mammal, after the elephant.

More than 300 entries had been submitted in the first 10 days of the monthlong contest, which ends July 31 . They range from a guess of 101 pounds scrawled in childish handwriting to another of 19,000 pounds .

The visitors who guess the closest weight for each animal without going over will win a behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo and a family membership.

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The contest was conceived a few months ago after zookeeper Charlene Wright successfully trained the horned beasts to step up on a platform rigged with scales. It’s the first time the duo had ever been weighed.

Only Wright and another zookeeper who assisted with the weigh-ins know the heavyweights’ secrets.

Wright used a reward system to coax the rhinos onto a sturdy platform. Whole loaves of French bread, grain coated in molasses, and back scratches with a scrub brush worked the best. She said face, neck and back scratches are the rhinos’ favorite because they love attention.

“People tend to think that rhinos are big, dumb, gray animals that look like rocks in the yard, but they really are very smart,” she said.

Wright began training the rhinos three years ago after learning the technique at a conference. Using a stick with a buoy at the end, a whistle and of course rewards, Wright started by getting the rhinos to stand still in a certain spot next to the protective bars in their indoor holding area.

That allowed zoo staff to administer vaccines by hand instead of a dart gun aimed at their rumps. The dart gun was dangerous because keepers could miss and hit the animal in a more tender spot or it could ricochet off walls and hit a keeper.

Getting the animals to stay still within arm’s reach also allowed the zoo to participate in a year-long study of male rhino hormones by a University of Florida professor. Zoo staff drew blood samples regularly to send to Florida.

With additional work, Wright taught the rhinos to step up on a weighing platform. Knowing accurate weights assists in their care.

Rhinos that are sick or injured tend to mask their symptoms, because in the wild, sickness or injury make them vulnerable to predators . With monthly weigh-ins, keepers can track their weights. Weight loss could signal a problem. Weight gain could trigger a stricter diet. Accurate weights also assist in proper dosing of medicine.

Zoo director Lewis Greene said training also offers valuable stimulation to the animals.

Wright’s next goal, to check the pads on the bottoms of their feet, could also be the opening of a joke. How do you get a rhino to stand on three legs?

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