CHANNEL DISTRICT — It's pouring, and Dominique Martinez's steel rhino is ankle deep in a puddle, horn pointing at the artist's warehouse, butt fronting a side street off Channelside Drive.
This is no home for his most treasured artwork, Martinez insists.
"Look at his hips," the artist says. "Look at his back. It's such a natural form."
The beast belongs on Bayshore Boulevard, grazing the grassy median, he says. But for that to happen, Martinez would need to send a proposal to the city first.
Maybe Lowry Park Zoo would take the creature, he says. Put it somewhere for all to see. Martinez might pursue that possibility next — anything to find his creation a permanent home.
For the rogue rhino, it has been a rough three years.
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Did you know that rhinos weigh thousands of pounds but can still reach 40 miles per hour? Martinez does.
He likes them so much that rhino figurines line the shelves of his office. He resolved to create one of his own — big and metal, like the giant dragons he custom-makes at his business, Rustic Steel Creations.
For three weeks, Martinez and two others toiled. They used their hands to bend and weld it into place. Soon the rhino stood on its own: 51/2 feet tall, 5 feet wide, 10 feet long, 200 pounds.
Martinez was so proud, he loaded the creation onto the bed of his pickup truck one morning in May 2005 and planted it in the median on Bayshore — without city permission.
Officials looked the other way for a while, but once he added two giraffes, the city said that all the animals had to go.
"In terms of lawn care, trimming and maintenance, it got in the way," city art manager Robin Nigh would later say. "You can't just stick it out there."
After a short blast of local publicity over the debacle, Martinez moved on. The rhino spent most of the next three years in front of Martinez's warehouse and inside the fenced lot across the street. That was until the Fourth of July weekend, this year.
Martinez arrived July 8 to find the fence knocked down, the post uprooted and the rhino gone. He called the police, and television news caught on.
Days later and 17 miles away, at the county line in Oldsmar, the manager of the Round Up country-western nightclub called the police, too. The giant steel rhino had spent the past couple of days in his parking spot.
Martinez remembers the detective's call on July 11: "We've got your rhino."
The disappearance reinvigorated the artist's drive to find a better home for the rhino, where it would be appreciated. And like an elephant, Martinez hasn't forgotten that the rhino-napping prankster is still on the loose.
"If you mess with a rhino," Martinez said, "they'll hunt you down ... They go after what they want, and they don't give up until they get it."
And so, the rhino returned to where it always returns, a few feet away from where it was created, a little warped but still standing.
That's another thing Martinez loves about rhinos:
They have thick skin.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3354.