How to Train a Baby Rhino

At just over 550 pounds, the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden’s youngest Indian rhino is growing up quickly! Yabi was born on October 23, 2020, weighing in at approximately 154 pounds. She is the second calf born to mom, Niki, but she more closely resembles her late father, Arun.

Never far from mom, Yabi gains a little more confidence and independence every day as she continues to explore her habitat in Sanctuary Asia. Guests can often find her wallowing in the mud or napping in a warm, sunny spot. Yabi will continue to nurse from mom for up to a year, as she continues to grow and develop. Today, at just four months old, Yabi is already beginning to bond and train with her caretakers. This training will be vital for the continued care of this soon-to-be, 3,000-pound rhino!

So, how exactly do you train a baby rhino? To start, caretakers created a positive relationship with Yabi through lots of rubs, pats and scratches! Despite its tough, armored appearance, a rhino’s skin is actually very sensitive. Tactile sensations are quite reinforcing for rhinos, but these interactions always occur with safety in mind. Even at young age, rhinos have a great deal of power! Because of a rhino’s size and strength, training allows caretakers to safely get an up-close look at these animals to ensure that they are healthy. This task would be nearly impossible without a training program in place. Some of these behaviors include opening the mouth, presenting different sides of the body, stepping onto a scale, and voluntarily accepting blood draws and injections. Training these behaviors is a long process that includes many steps, but Yabi is proving to be a very quick learner!

The next progression in the training process began in January when Yabi started exploring solid foods. Although Yabi is still reliant on mom’s milk for nutrients, she has taken a liking to cantaloupes, apples and even oranges. These are just a few food rewards that the caretakers use to positively reinforce Yabi’s different behaviors. For young Yabi, the first behavior she is learning is called “target.” This important behavior will lay the foundation for all of the other training to come and is a behavior that many of the other animals at the Zoo know as well! The caretakers initially presented a target pole to Yabi. This device is made up of a plastic pool buoy on the end of a pole. The caretakers began by simply touching the buoy to Yabi’s nose, signaling the moment with a clicker, “bridge” and following it with a food reward. The bridge is a sound that indicates the correct behavior and signals to the animal that food is on the way. By continually pairing the target, bridge and food, Yabi quickly made the association that if she touches her nose to the target pole, she will receive a tasty treat.

Now, the caretakers can hold the target pole a few feet away from Yabi, and she will move to the keepers to touch the target. This is a simple behavior that her caretakers will be focusing on for the next several months, as she continues to form a relationship with them and grow more independent from mom. It will allow her caretakers to move her to different areas of the habitat or within the rhino barn to take frequent weights and measure her growth, and even assist in short separations from mom - an important action in case of a medical emergency.

Caring for the many animals at the Zoo is no small feat and utilizing training to assist in that care is a constant task. We look forward to sharing more experiences of Yabi's growth and development in the spring and summer ahead!

- Marionna Cane, pachyderm caretaker

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