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  1. Life & Culture

She looks after Jody, Busch Gardens’ endangered black rhino

Cara Martel, a zoological supervisor at Busch Gardens, helps look after one of the world’s endangered black rhinos.
Jody is a 33 year old black rhinoceros who has been a longtime fixture at Busch Gardens in Tampa. There are just over 5,000 black rhinoceroses left in the world. They are classified as a critically endangered species, which means they’re at “extremely high risk” of going extinct. In this photo she is being fed a papaya, one of her favorite fruits.
Jody is a 33 year old black rhinoceros who has been a longtime fixture at Busch Gardens in Tampa. There are just over 5,000 black rhinoceroses left in the world. They are classified as a critically endangered species, which means they’re at “extremely high risk” of going extinct. In this photo she is being fed a papaya, one of her favorite fruits. [ Busch Gardens ]
Published Jun. 24

TAMPA — The city bustles all around her, but Jody doesn’t get to see it.

But people come to see her. The black rhinoceros is a longtime fixture at Busch Gardens, where gazelles, giraffes, zebras, white rhinos and other exotic herbivores roam the 65-acre Serengeti Safari.

Jody keeps busy as a recycler, eating her favorite fruit, papayas and producing the seeded fertilizer that grows more papayas for her.

There are just over 5,000 black rhinoceroses left in the world, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Smaller than the white rhino, they are classified as a critically endangered species — one step worse than endangered species — which means they’re at “extremely high risk” of going extinct.

Cara Martel is the zoological supervisor of rhinos and hoof stock at Busch Gardens in Tampa.
Cara Martel is the zoological supervisor of rhinos and hoof stock at Busch Gardens in Tampa. [ Busch Gardens ]

Cara Martel, 42, zoological supervisor of rhinos and hoof stock at the park’s zoo, promotes protecting threatened rhinos in the wild as the park’s representative of the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund.

She talked with the Tampa Bay Times about Jody and the threats faced by rhinos in the wild.

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• • •

How did Jody develop her love for papayas?

Jody is a critically endangered eastern black rhino. She’s an herbivore, she’s a browser. You can be either a browser or a grazer. Some of the rhinos, like the white rhino, are grazers, where they have very wide lips and they graze on (grass.) But Jody, being a browser, she will eat everything vegetation-wise much more up in the air — branches, leaves, fruits. Fruit-bearing trees they will definitely eat on and papaya is absolutely one of her favorite things.

We do offer her papaya and we do have papaya growing in her area. It started out with us trying different fruits, watermelon, cantaloupe, papaya, to see what kind of seasonal variation she might like. We know she likes papaya a lot now, so what we did — which is my favorite story about her and papaya — anyway, she produces about 80 to 100 pounds of fecal material every single day, which seems like an incredible amount.

We compost all of that. We have a compost facility on site where they, amazingly enough, compost about 3 million pounds of manure every single year, including Jody’s. And all of that manure goes into creating very rich, naturally fertilized soil. So we took that soil and planted papaya seeds from the papayas that she had eaten and we grew our own papaya trees. And whenever they are ripe and ready to go, we offer those again to Jody and the cycle just keeps continuing.

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• • •

Does Jody have a personality?

She absolutely does. She is 33 years old and for a black rhino that is considerably very well along in years. She’s actually the oldest one in an (Association of Zoos & Aquariums)-accredited facility … and because she is a critically endangered species it’s amazing to think that out of only 5,000 left on the planet, she is doing very well ... she still is loving life.

She is given a best day every day. She is offered various types of enrichment. She is very tactile with her keepers. She has a great team of animal care specialists working with her every day to provide her various forms of browse (items), like mulberry, anything with leaves or fruit. She also has a variety of grain and hay that she’s offered. She loves to explore her habitat and she loves to be near her keepers. … She’s really engaged and excited that we are there.

And for us that personality indicator is pretty cool to see. With black black rhinos in general, the males do have a very aggressive type of tendency whereas the females are a little more laid back, so that’s exactly what we’re seeing from Jody. She is acting like a natural rhino. Black rhinos are definitely solitary in nature so we would see a solitary black rhino if we were in Africa as well.

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• • •

Rhinos are known for charging. Is that a concern at Busch Gardens?

It’s absolutely a concern. A rhino has a horn for a reason and they know that that is their greatest defensive quality. Now, Jody here in the park does not utilize that horn in that way. She likes to keep hers nice and short.

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• • •

Is it a useful tool?

We do look to see her using her horn. They would do this naturally as they would also be exploring different browse (items). They would be going in and out of trees. … We will offer her different puzzles, toys, puzzle feeders and provide her a way to use her horn where she can crack the horn onto the watermelon or pumpkin. She loves to crack those and then eat them.

• • •

Why are rhinos in the wild endangered?

They are endangered for a few reasons. Poaching and habitat loss are the main ones. Very unfortunately, they are poached for their horns. Their horn in many countries is believed to have medicinal properties. But it is made of keratin, the same thing our hair and nails are made of. That’s one reason. Habitat loss is another one. Unfortunately, the human population just keeps growing (and leaving) less and less space for some of our wildlife.

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• • •

The horn has no medicinal value, right?

All current research and literature found there are no medicinal qualities to the rhino horn. There are definitely conservation groups and zoological institutions working for the continuing education of what that horn is, why rhinos have it and why the best place for a horn is on a rhino.

• • •

What does giving the animals enrichment mean?

Enrichment can be anything that you’re offering them daily. It could be different auditory sounds. It could be turning the radio on for them. It could be different smells. There are different seasonings that we use with the animals. Lions, for example, really love taco seasoning, and they will roll all around in taco seasoning because they love the smell. And they will rub up against each other after they’ve rolled in taco seasoning …

It’s to enrich them and enhance their quality of life. For example, giraffes ... if we fed them hay in one lump, that would be different than offering them hay in a feeder created out of fire hose (which) takes a little bit of time for them to get their tongues in and around some of the weaving of the fire hose, which (is similar to) how they would go about eating in and out of an acacia tree.

It can be very stimulating, and that’s one of the things we want to be able to offer to physically and mentally stimulate the animal throughout the day.

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• • •

The animals like the radio?

They do. We have some animals that don’t care either way but we do have a few animals that like the radio. We’ve noticed initially when you have different bands come into the park, we have some animals that kind of move toward the sound a little bit. Sometimes it’s individuals of a certain species and not necessarily an entire species.

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