In 1997 I had just become a full-time relief keeper at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo---a large regional zoo comparable in size to Chicago's Brookfield Zoo. As a relief keeper, I was tasked with filling in for any zoo animal care providers who were on vacation or out on sick leave. Much like a substitute teacher I learned the routine, but never quite got to know the animals as intimately as the regular care providers or area animal keepers.
I thought I might have some free time to catch up on learning animal keeper routines, but someone was always sick or on-leave for some reason, so it seemed. Hence, I was busy filling in for animal keepers, often learning the job on the go as soon as I was assigned to a given area of the Zoo.
In 1997 the Zoo's Rainforest exhibit had just opened. The world-class exhibit is an impressive facility. The enclosed two level, two acre exhibit was the brainchild of Senior Curator Don Kuenzer and has since received much acclaim as an innovative exhibit showcasing over 10000 plants and over 600 animals from Asia, Africa and the Americas.
While Don was busy with the inaugural visitor season for the Rainforest exhibit, Mammal Curator Alan Sironen was deployed or soon to be deployed to South Africa to pick up a wild, adult rhinoceros. The entire staff eagerly anticipated the arrival of Inge from the Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa.
Here is my account of Inge's arrival, as posted on my social media pages for World Rhino Day:
The Kansas City and Cleveland zoos had both received permission to import Eastern black rhinos from Africa into the US. I think at the time there were only 660 individuals of this subspecies of rhino left in the world (captive or free-ranging). You might scoff at the notion of taking animals out of the wild, something zoos rarely do today. But to protect this Critically Endangered subspecies it was deemed appropriate by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Conservation Breeding Specialist Group and other entities to recruit some new "rhino genetics" into the captive breeding pool/population. The two US zoos were issued CITES permits for importation of the two rhinos.
One of my mentors, Alan Sironen (then curator of mammals in Cleveland), and my friend, Conrad Schmitt (then curator of mammals in Kansas City), traveled to Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa to "collect" and bring back these two wild females. Both have since given birth to multiple offspring raising the worldwide population of black rhinos, which continue to face threats from poaching. Addo holds about 50 animals, which are managed outside of the natural range for the subspecies.
As of 2010, the Eastern black rhino population, which can now only be found in Kenya and Tanzania after being extirpated from Ethiopia and Somalia, was estimated to number around 740 animals.