ST. PETERSBURG — Right now, like everyone else, the rhino is getting political.
American flag sunglasses perch under its horn. A white banner hangs across its broad shoulders. A big blue and red logo reads “Biden/Harris,” and written smaller below that, “Rhinos for change.”
The life-sized rhinoceros statue stands guard outside a house on St. Petersburg’s Coffee Pot Boulevard, tucked behind a fence dotted with 24-hour surveillance signs. You may have seen the festive fella before, donning bold seasonal apparel. It rocked a pink tulle necklace on Valentine’s Day and a charming straw bonnet on Easter. It supported the New Orleans Saints with black and gold garb during their playoff run. It gets gussied up on St. Patrick’s Day and patriotic for the Fourth of July.
Recently, the rhino has become perhaps the most creative of St. Petersburg’s political yard signs (that’s saying something for a city where a guy who painted “Trump 2020” on his roof).
“The rhino has kind of been adopted by the neighborhood," said Kalju Nekvasil, the guy who lives in the rhino house.
Nekvasil, a 60-year-old an investment fraud attorney, has resided in the Historic Old Northeast since the early ’90s. He’s been the proud owner of the rhino for about two decades. He has no idea where it came from.
Nekvasil was returning home from a game of basketball at the YMCA early one morning when he spotted his white German shepherd, Ice, sitting in front of the house by the street. She looked confused. Next to her was the rhinoceros.
“That’s what happened," he said. "The rhino was just there.”
The rhino stayed in front of the home for a while, perched right in the middle of their property by the sidewalk. Then one day a busload of tourists came by. They took turns taking pictures with the statue and trying to climb it.
“The police asked us to move the rhino," Nekvasil recalls.
It was banished to the woods on the left side of the house, buried behind bushes in the yard. A fence was eventually erected around the property. The sculpture stayed concealed for years, until Nekvasil met his second wife, Cynthia, in 2012.
“One of the first things I did on the first date ... was show her the rhino,” he said. “And she said, ‘the rhino belongs in the front.’”
Seven years ago, Cynthia Nekvasil decided to surprise her husband while he was out of town. She commissioned a platform for the front of the yard that was long enough to hold the rhino, which she estimates to be about 10 feet long. No one knows exactly how much the sculpture weighs, but it was so heavy that she enlisted six teenagers from the Shorecrest Prep swim team for transport.
As a joke, Cynthia’s friend placed a Thanksgiving wreath around the rhino’s neck. They added lights to finish the look.
“Everybody just started stopping and taking pictures and telling us how much they loved it,” she said. “That really started the idea of dressing it up for different seasons.”
Sometimes Cynthia makes the outfits, fashioning household items like planters into hats. Other times, she consults a seamstress. During the pandemic, she learned that the family’s handyman knows his way around a sewing machine.
“My wife is a creative genius," Nekvasil said. “She comes up with the ideas and people just love it.”
As the pandemic spread throughout Florida, the rhino’s looks morphed into public health messages. It sported a nurse’s hat and mask to promote hand washing. As the summer months raged on, it transitioned to a socially distant pool party look: hot pink sunglasses, a white and yellow striped inner tube as an infinity scarf of sorts, and a turquoise banner reading: “Sun & fun at a safe social distance.” Then in the fall, the Biden/Harris outfit emerged.
Over the years, the rhino has become a cherished landmark. Parents bring their children to see it. Drivers and cyclists slow down to snap photos. Nekvasil said one time, when police caught a bike theft suspect, he told them, “I don’t remember every address, but I can definitely tell you I stole bicycles from the rhino house.”
"It’s just a community destination.” said Gaelynn Thurman, an Old Northeast resident and friend of the Nekvasils. “That thing is honkin' huge.”
Thurman frequently sees the rhino while visiting her mother nearby. Even though the boulevard is paved in bumpy bricks, Thurman said that people intentionally go out of their way to drive there, just to check out the latest outfit.
“They put in an awful lot of effort," said Thurman, 55. "All of this is handmade or homemade. It’s a gift to the neighborhood.”
Thurman and Cynthia call the rhino Rodney. Nekvasil said he never settled on a name, referring to it as “she.”
“You should have people come up with a nickname for the rhino,” he told a reporter.
The Nekvasils have thought about moving. But one home they wanted didn’t have room for the sculpture. So they passed on it.
“We would take the rhino with us," Nekvasil said.
“That rhino’s part of our life forever."