The Black Rhinoceros: My Time with an Extinct Animal

black rhino

African officials have declared the Western Black Rhinoceros extinct. It’s a loss of devastating proportion, cementing–if there was ever any doubt–just how poorly humans are managing the environment and jeopardizing the future of creatures who have been here much longer than us.

Throughout history, species come and go. One day (soon?), humans will also go the way of the dinosaur, the saber-toothed tiger, the black rhinoceros. But now, as we are quite consciously participating in our existence and our evolution, we have the ability to prevent the loss of species. Or, at least, that’s how it seems. Could we have done more to preserve a creature as awe inspiring as the rhino?

Nearly two decades ago, I spent time with two baby black rhinoceroses. It changed my perception of captivity and nature.

In the summer of 1996 I took a job working at the Pittsburgh Zoo. I was managing the children’s zoo staff. About 80 high school kids held posts in the goat, deer and kangaroo yards as well as several animal-themed rides and slides. It was hard work. We swept up a lot of animal poop and made sure kids didn’t hurl themselves off of the rides in a way that would ruin their day.

During my lunch breaks, I’d stroll the zoo grounds marveling at the many creatures. I had spent a lot of time at the zoo growing up. Chuckles the porpoise was an old friend. The llamas and I went way back. The elephants seemed to know me, too. I loved everything about the zoo (except for most of the humans). The smells didn’t bother me. The poop was endearing. I didn’t mind the hours or working on holidays. After all, I got to spend time with some of the most adorable, ferocious and unique creatures on the planet. I’d get to give lions giant bones on Sundays. I still have a tiger whisker and an ostrich feather that would have otherwise been swept up into the trash.

After a time, I applied for an internship, in hopes of one day becoming a zookeeper myself. Maybe I’d wind up like Jane Goodall out in some conservation effort deep in a jungle. Even though I was a vegetarian, the sad, captive nature of the zoo hadn’t quite dawned on me yet. All I saw was the natural curiosity of the many species. I believed the hype that zoos were special places helping to successfully breed endangered species. It’s not like they were purely for entertainment, right?  They served a function: to educate the community about the animal kingdom. In fact, it was the many summers I spent strolling through the zoo with my family that I credit for turning me towards vegetarianism in the first place. How could I eat someone who had a face, regardless of what species it was?

Both my boyfriend and I received internship offers in the big cat and rhino department. We couldn’t have been more thrilled. We were going to work face to face with lions, tigers and two baby black rhinos soon to arrive to replace the white rhinos heading to China. (Those rhinos were killed, sadly.)

The absurd nature of zoo life hit us quickly. The very first day our internship began, we were present for the euthanizing of a Siberian tiger riddled with cancer. She was a longtime resident who had even given birth there. Animals don’t get cancer in nature. Not like that, anyway.

black rhino

But my main focus would be helping with the baby rhinos—a boy and a girl. If my memory serves me, their names were Jomo and Misha. One of them had been rejected by their mother, which is a common occurrence, particularly in zoo settings. They were both young—but by no means less than gigantic. As adults, black rhinos can weigh 3,000 pounds or more. These “babies” were tipping the 1,000-pound mark before their first birthday.

Baby mammals require milk. Most of my time was spent cooking up a concoction supposed to resemble rhino milk. It was a mix of cow milk, water, sugar and vitamins, heated up so it would be nice and warm. It gave the babies massive rhino diarrhea, which I’d spend most of the rest of my time cleaning up. Rivers of green sludge filled their tiny indoor quarters, which were about the size of my living room now. Sometimes I feel penned up in my own house. I can’t imagine what I’d feel like if all the space I had amounted to the size of a closet.

black rhino

Once all the rhino poop was cleaned up, we had another task: coaxing the animals into their exhibit area. These were babies. Babies scared of venturing a few feet outdoors even though it was a much bigger area than their pens. We’d climb up onto the fake anthill in the exhibit and do our best to encourage them to come outside. They’d step slowly, squeaking and squealing like babies. It was adorable and sad. These beautiful, motherless creatures were nothing more than giant horned puppies taken from their mothers too soon.

Now, the only black rhinos on the planet exist in captivity. Their once massive sprawl of land has been replaced by cement and metal enclosures. The natural vegetation that made up their diets is now just piles of crunchy hay, day after day. Or, in the case of orphaned newborns, a milk soup that comes nowhere close to the real thing.

black rhino

One of my most memorable experiences with the rhinos was on Christmas morning. It’s the only day of the year the zoo is closed to guests. The quiet is eerie and refreshing. We cooked up the giant bottles of faux rhino milk and brought them down to the cages where the babies squealed in anticipation for food that was only going to make them sick. The black rhinoceros has a prehensile lip—kind of like a very small elephant trunk. It can pull in food, and on this occasion, the baby girl pulled my hand into her mouth and began to suck with the pressure of an industrial vice grip. If my hand was crushed beyond repair, I wouldn’t have been surprised. She mistook me for her bottle, for her mother, and as she realized I offered no sustenance, she gently released my hand and rooted in search of the bottle.

Working face to face with some of the planet’s most magnificent species pushed me towards avoiding zoos and captive animal situations for good. And now, as one of our most beloved wild animals exists only in zoos, it brings up a whole host of questions: Should we support captivity? Aren’t these animals vastly different than those who’ve never seen a cage? Should we try breeding programs and encourage efforts to attempt reintroduction to the wild? Or should we simply accept that from now on, they live only in captivity?

How strange it is that we can wander into a zoo and see an animal who was once a representative for his wild cousins now a representative for extinction, for time passed, and a future Earth that is surely going to be a much different place.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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Images: 25kim (top), Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites and, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better.