BY JACK LOWENSTEIN
Lion Country Safari is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and on Wednesday, March 15, it also celebrated the birthday of the southern white rhinoceros Blossom, who turns 2 on Saturday, March 18. The celebration will continue Saturday with additional enrichments.
Blossom is continuing to learn her way of life in the herd that lives at the wildlife park.
“She is definitely in that phase, the terrible twos, where she is testing her mother’s patience, trying to see what she can get away with,” rhino keeper Daniel Soler said.
Soler has been with Lion Country Safari for five years and has worked as the rhino keeper for three.
“I love this species because they’re so spunky, and they’re intelligent. They’re a lot more intelligent than people give them credit for. Their herd mentality is really cool,” Soler said. “It’s like being a cowboy, except with exotic animals. I get to ride around in a truck, give out hay and mess with these guys.”
Blossom is only 2 years old, but she is still one of an endangered species. Soler said there are about 20,000 white rhinos left in the wild.
“They are being poached for their horns. It is seen in several cultures as having medicinal properties, but we know that to not be true,” Soler said. “Their horns are just made of keratin, which is the same thing that your fingernails or your hair is made out of.”
Marketing Director Jennifer Berthiaume said Blossom’s species is being poached at a rate of three rhinos per day, where they are predominantly found in South Africa. Lion Country Safari has been helping to revitalize the species for decades.
“Thirty-four rhinos have been born here since the late 1970s,” Berthiaume said.
The rhinos spend a great deal of time in small groups.
“They all hang out within one territory, but, at the same time, they distribute themselves in pair bonds,” Soler said. “It’s very loose. There are two girls over here and two girls over there, and although they are a herd, they are also very independent, and they hang out usually mother-daughter or sisters, hanging out in pairs.”
For Blossom’s big day, she was brought a wrapped present, filled with treats and feed that the animals enjoy. Her mother, Bloom, and her two older sisters, Anna and Lainey, were there to celebrate along with the entire herd.
“We try to be creative with the enrichments we give to the animals, and they don’t only get them on their birthdays,” Berthiaume said. “They get enrichments year-round, but we use birthdays as a time to make special packages.”
Soler, Berthiaume and Events Coordinator Joanna Montante visited Blossom with the gifts, and immediately the herd gravitated toward the presents, sharing in Blossom’s birthday snacks. The animals came up to the staff members to say “hello,” as Soler gave out feed to Blossom and the other rhinos.
Blossom and all the rhinos at Lion Country Safari are part of the Species Survival Plan (SSP), “which is kind of a cross between ancestry.com and match.com,” Soler explained. “It’s a way for us and other zoos and facilities like us to collaborate on genetic diversity and breeding.”
Through the program, facilities like Lion Country Safari will send rhinos to other areas in order to breed and continue to help the endangered species grow. At Lion Country Safari, there are currently three males, but two of them have reached retirement age or are nearing it when it comes to breeding.
“Recently we acquired another rhino as part of the SSP program, and he’s due to be our new breeder bull,” Soler said. “He was introduced to the females a couple of weeks ago, and he’s doing pretty well so far.”
Blossom was born by way of the SSP, and her father is still traveling and helping the herd grow.
“She is the daughter of Bloom and Timmy, and Timmy recently sired another calf at a zoo in San Diego,” Soler said. “We send rhinos where they need to go to breed the species.”
Blossom is still young and has not fully matured. When she reaches a certain age, the SSP coordinator for her species will let her handler know if she can go mate at another facility accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.
“We would love to have her here, but if it’s going to better for the species as a whole to ship her out, then we will,” Soler said. “With the SSP as an organization, they tell us who needs to go where.”
Blossom will start to hit maturity at about 4-and-a-half years old and most likely be ready to breed at age 5.
“That’s when we will see whether or not she is going to be breeding here or at another facility,” Soler said. “Until then, she’s going to be here with her mom, learning from the herd how to be a rhino.”
Learn more about Lion Country Safari at www.lioncountrysafari.com.
ABOVE: Blossom, the white rhinoceros, wears a birthday hat.