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The Bridge Interviews



April 2022

Meet Queenie. She is the youngest ever interviewee in The Bridge by quite a wide margin. She is also the first on four legs. She is a rhino and was born at the Cotswold Wildlife Park & Garden in January this year. At the time of our meeting, she was capering around the paddock at the park, despite it being a chilly day in early March. She was accompanied by her mother, Nancy, and did not go far from her.

Speaking to us via head keeper Mark Godwin, Queenie explains that she is a southern white rhinoceros. The park has a history of looking after rhinos. Before starting to work full time at the park, owner Reggie Heyworth spent three years in Tanzania on a rhino conservation project involving black rhinos and the animals have been close to his heart ever since. Northern white rhinos are virtually extinct but the southern ones (Ceratotherium simum simum, since you ask) are more plentiful and are classified as “near threatened” rather than “threatened.”

This is the second rhino birth at the park in the last few months as Ruby produced Molly last October. Nancy and Ruby are used for a regular breeding programme and usually give birth every two years although Nancy holds the local record for having produced one calf 18 months after her previous one. The park currently has seven rhinos. The other females are Stella who is two and a half years old and Dora who is 18 months. Both of them will in due course be found new homes at other collections in Europe.

Then there is Monty who might be called the Big Daddy of the crash, which is the collective noun for a group of rhinos for reasons you can doubtless work out. He weighs in at three and a half tons and is six feet high at the shoulder, a lot bigger than his ladies. He came to the Cotswolds from Knowsley Safari Park on Merseyside. “He’s a scouser but we don’t hold that against him,” says Mark.The names are usually given by Reggie for a variety of reasons: Stella after a goddaughter, Dora for the park’s 50th anniversary (as in dorado, Spanish for golden) and Queenie, of course, for Her Majesty’s jubilee. Last year Mark was invited to name the new arrival so he called her Molly after his four-year-old daughter who was naturally delighted.

Mark is a local boy, having been brought up down the road from the park in Eastleach. He started out as a young lad doing whatever part time or winter work was available at the Park. After a time he was given an opportunity to work with the animals and after 31 years he is still there.He is head keeper for the rhinos and his other responsibilities include ostriches, cassowaries, llamas, reindeer and sheep. He is with the rhinos five days a week with colleagues covering for him at other times. He says it is helpful for them to be looked after by the same person regularly. “The more calm and relaxed you are, the happier they will be.”

Like racehorses, rhinos are pedigree animals and there is a stud book kept in Denmark covering those in a number of zoos and parks in Europe. The family histories and other details of the rhinos are recorded. This will be used when Dora and Stella are rehomed so as to ensure that they finish up in places where their bloodlines are different from those of other resident rhinos. Similarly, the stud book could be used to find a new bull for the park should a vacancy arise. The process of moving them to a new home is an art in itself and Mark prepares his charges for this by first getting them used to being in an open box before the time comes when they are closed in for the final move.

We asked Mark whether it is true that rhinos have poor eyesight. He explained that they have good eyesight when they are young but over time they come to rely more on their senses of hearing and smell and he describes them as lazy sighted. They can be flighty if startled by a sudden sound or movement. He gives an example of when they were being filmed with the sound recordist standing quietly in the corner with headphones on. At the end of a take he said “Can we do that again?” and this was enough to spook the rhino which had not noticed that there was someone there. They also don’t like being out in the open paddock on windy days as the wind interferes with their sensitive hearing.

Being charged by an angry rhino is said to be one of life’s more terrifying experiences which most of us are happy to avoid. Mark, however, insists that this is a misleading image and that they are relatively docile and easy to deal with. The biggest risk is of having one step on your foot. He does admit to once having his shorts torn my Monty and also to having been lifted up by his coat but this seems to be all in a day’s work.

At the time of our visit only Queenie and Nancy were outside in the paddock, with little (relatively speaking) Queenie getting plenty of attention from visitors. In the summer all the crash apart from Monty may be outside at the same time and they are a big attraction for visitors to the park. Monty is kept apart as there is a risk that he may be a little over-enthusiastic to find a receptive lady. This can make the females stressed and give them the rhino equivalent of a headache.

They have relatively few health problems, says Mark. They have robust digestive systems and don’t suffer from internal parasites. The only time when there can be difficulties is when they are giving birth. Their life expectancy in captivity is 50 to 55 years. They can suffer from hip problems or arthritis from sleeping on damp surfaces so they are given rubber mats to sleep on which disperse moisture. They are vegetarian and, as you can imagine, consume a lot. “They eat a bale of hay a day and are like giant lawnmowers in the paddock,” says Mark. They also have special rhino nuts containing extra nutrients which are milled for them at the park. All that eating leads to production of prodigious quantities of poo. This used to be used as manure on the park’s farm estate but this is no longer possible as the farm is organic and the pellets fed to the rhinos cannot be certified as GM free. Mark was a little evasive about where all the poo now goes but he says that some is hardened off and varnished and given to Reggie’s friends. Sadly it is not available for sale in the park gift shop.

Monty - Big Daddy

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