Lou Keeley, one of the Zoo’s newest animal keepers, came from the Niabi Zoo to Blank Park Zoo last December to work with the Zoo’s large mammals. He was also a seasonal keeper for the Brookfield Zoo, working mainly with giraffe and okapi.
At Blank Park Zoo, Lou works with the rhinos, eland, giraffe, watusi and lesser kudu. I wanted to ask Lou what it was like to work with the rhinos, the highly anticipated new animals to arrive for the Zoo’s new Africa exhibit, opening May 4.
New animal keeper, Lou Keeley, works with the Zoo's rhinos
1. What is your favorite part of working with the Zoo's rhinos? Do you have a memorable moment?
The part I most enjoy about working with the rhinos is their daily training sessions. Since our two rhinos actively seek out human interaction and are exceptionally treat motivated (produce such as apples, bananas, carrots and sweet potatoes), they have been very good ‘students.’
The most memorable moment I have had with the rhinos is the first time I had seen them receive a bath. The rhinos get a weekly bath to clean their skin, which is followed by a moisturizer. During baths, the rhinos become very playful, which involves them running around their stalls and lying down to roll onto their sides. Seeing our rhinos display these behaviors for the first time was a big treat for me.
Ayana weighs over 2,000 pounds!
2. How have Ayana and Kiano adapted to Blank Park Zoo?
It is oftentimes difficult for animals to experience big changes in their lives, and moving to a completely new zoo with different people, enclosures, sights and smells can be quite stressful. Ayana, who is from Zoo Miami, and Kiano, from Great Plains Zoo, were both initially frightened, and frightened rhinos tend to behave aggressively. So for their first couple of weeks at Blank Park Zoo, they avoided being around keepers and even charged at their restraint bars. The rhino keepers did a great job acclimating the rhinos to their new surroundings by working calmly and quietly around them and slowly gaining their trust. Now both rhinos are at ease with the Zoo’s facilities and love being around people.
Kiano has some catching up to do, weighing about 1,250 pounds
3. What kind of training and enrichment do you do with the rhinos?
The rhinos receive different forms of enrichment every day, including large toys such as heavy duty weeble wobbles and balls, novel food items (cantaloupe, jelly), various scents (mint, vanilla and orange extracts), or different social interactions. The rhinos really enjoy pushing around, or sparring with the large toys, giving them a chance to test their strength (some toys weigh near 100 pounds!). Keepers will also switch the rhinos’ poop piles, and the rhinos like to defecate over the other rhino’s feces. [Yep, you read that right.]
Through positive reinforcement, Ayana and Kiano have learned or are learning behaviors such as opening their mouths for oral inspections, targeting their nose to a target pole (tennis ball on a stick), and entering a unique restraint device built specifically for rhinos. This restraint device has special movable walls that comfortably ‘squeeze’ the rhino and makes it possible to safely and securely perform medical procedures keepers or vet staff may need to accomplish…whether it is creating safer keeper/animal interactions for evaluating health or helping the rhinos acclimate to potentially stressful situations.
4. Do Ayana and Kiano have personalities? Do they get along?
Ayana is a very confident rhino, meaning she is usually the first to investigate new situations, while Kiano can be a bit more on the cautious side. Kiano also will let keepers know when he wants treats or attention, occasionally emitting high pitched ‘whining’ sounds.
Since wild black rhinos are mostly solitary (individuals may congregate at times around watering holes or other resources), they are mostly kept solitary in zoos, so Ayana and Kiano are not kept together. They are, however, given opportunities to meet face to face and touch through restraint bars. These interactions usually involve some nose to nose (or horn to horn) touching, but they mainly look at each other from a distance. Ayana is more interested in food than in interacting with Kiano!
5. Anything else you would like to share with Zoo visitors about the rhinos?
We are very excited for the public to finally be able to see these amazing animals in person! Hopefully these visitor-animal experiences will lead to a greater appreciation of all animals and our world’s natural resources. With only 4,800 black rhinos remaining in the wild (and less than 700 of the Eastern black rhino subspecies remaining), it is extremely important that efforts are made to ensure their survival, and one thing Zoo visitors can do to help wild rhinos is by donating to Blank Park Zoo or other conservation organizations focused on saving rhinoceros species (such as the International Rhino Foundation or the World Wildlife Fund).
The main reason all wild rhino species are in big trouble is illegal poaching, in which rhinos are killed and their horns harvested for sale in select countries. So we hope as many people as possible come out to meet Ayana and Kiano, the Zoo’s ambassadors to their wild black rhino counterparts, and see exactly why they are a species worth saving!