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Behind the scenes with rhino intros

My name is Danielle, and I am a member of the Hoofstock Team here at Zoo Atlanta. I am writing my blog today about an exciting time in the Hoofstock Department, southern white rhino introductions. Zoo Atlanta had the pleasure of receiving a male southern white rhino named Mumbles in 2020. When he arrived, we allowed him time to acclimate to his new surroundings and new care team. While Mumbles was adjusting, we were also patiently waiting for the White Rhino Species Survival Plan® (SSP), which is a conservation program that helps manage zoological populations of endangered animals, to send us a southern white rhino female for Mumbles. Well, we have now received that female. Kiazi, a 20-year-old white rhino, arrived at Zoo Atlanta in October of 2021. She has also been adjusting to her space and getting used to the idea of being introduced to a new male.

When preparing to introduce animals to one another, big or small, we want to move through the process slowly. We started introducing Kiazi and Mumbles to one another by letting them get used to each other’s smells. We would do this by moving them around the rhino building and letting them go into a space where the other rhino just left. It is common for rhinos to spray their areas with urine to mark their territories, so they were really able to get a feel for each other. At this point in the process, they were only able to smell each other, not see each other. 

After giving them time to adapt to that step, we moved on to visual intros. This means we would let the rhinos see each other but have no other contact. This was an exciting step in the process, and we were able to see a lot of interaction and hear multiple vocalizations from both rhinos. We would only leave them with visual access to one another for a limited period of time so we would not overwhelm them. As we moved forward, we would slowly increase the duration of time that they had visual access. As the interactions settled down and we started seeing them perform normal calm behaviors, such as eating and drinking, we knew we could continue with the process.

The next step is what we call “howdies.” This technique is when you have a type of barrier between the two individuals that allows visuals and some small amount of contact. This technique is great because it allows the animals to have a higher level of interaction but keeps them both safe and allows keepers to intervene easily if necessary. We did howdies with the rhinos for several weeks; in the beginning we saw a lot of interaction that included vocalizations and some sparring (image sword fighting, but with rhino horns). Mumbles would get very excited and would bounce around in front of her, while Kiazi was a little more reserved and unsure. As the howdies went on, the interactions calmed down and they became more comfortable with one another. This was a great sign and confirmed that we were able to move forward with the introduction process.

The next step was the biggest step of all, full intros. There was a lot of communication and planning before this final step. The team wanted to be fully prepared for any type of interaction. It is common for rhino introductions to be aggressive; it is the rhinos’ way of getting used to one another and figuring out who is going to be in charge. We were able to come up with a plan that worked great for our team and for our rhinos. The first session of introductions was a great success.  We had small amounts of aggression and sparring, but Mumbles was submissive and responsive to Kiazi’s cues and gave her the space she needed. We have now done introductions several more times, and each interaction seems to be getting better and better. We are still in the process of doing supervised introductions for limited periods of time, and their behavior and interactions will determine when we will be able to leave them together permanently. We are hoping that introductions continue to go well and that the southern white rhino program at Zoo Atlanta will become a successful breeding program that can contribute to the Species Survival Plan and the overall white rhino population.

Danielle S.
Keeper II, Mammals

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