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  • JillianForsberg

The Real Rhino and Me

Disclaimer: Rhinos are wild animals. While rhino encounters are available at many zoos, do not approach enclosures at zoos without a trained professional and explicit permission.

Yesterday my friend and real-life rhino keeper Kayla posted a familiar face on her Instagram stories: two-year-old KJ, the black rhino, chewing and looking at her with love.

A rhino, you say, in love? Oh yes. You can see it in his eyes. But I wouldn't have believed it myself if I hadn't witnessed it in person.

In November, I called the zoo and left a drawling voicemail about how I was an author writing a book about an 18th century rhino and I would love to speak to a zoo keeper on the phone about their animals. You see, my querying novel is about a historic Indian rhinoceros named Clara. And in order to get things right, to do it all justice, to understand fully the animal I was writing about, I had to answer some questions.

What do rhinos smell like? What noises do they make? How can I describe their gait, their play, their dislikes, their attitudes? What can I add or change in my book?

I was called back by Kayla, who's the nicest human on the planet. She's bubbly and warm, blonde, with a nose ring and a messy bun. And she did something very unexpected. She invited me to meet the rhinos. My fist was high in triumph. YES!

I brought my parents as paparazzi and my seven-year-old and we made our way to the rhino barn at the Sedgwick County Zoo on a chilly Sunday afternoon. I was trembling. Inside the barn, waiting for us and for their keeper, were two Black Rhinos. Bibi, KJ's mom, was massive - her horns with girth like a rural fence post, shoulder as high as mine. KJ, smaller, teenager-like, huffed and rustled his feathery ears at us. His horns are growing, including a funny rare third horn on his forehead like an actual unicorn. They smelled earthy, not unlike a horse.

Kayla opened a barrier gate and we sidled up to the animals, protected by large bars. Rhinos, Kayla explained, startle easily, and though they are not aggressive, it's best to keep your distance. A stray gust of wind can send them reeling. The thought of a chirping bird or wind making these massive animals startle was surprising. They seemed so stoic! But it turns out they're kinda goofy.

Kayla had a bucket of sliced bananas and large grain-like pellets and the rhinos folded their ears forward, eagerly anticipating their keeper and their snacks. I could tell they knew Kayla, trusted her. I immediately went into curiosity mode and asked a million questions while I fed them. They opened their small mouths, curling their prehensile lips around the bananas (which were much preferred to the pellets), turning their ears toward each sound.

I touched them. I felt their sandpaper-rough skin, stuck my hands in between the pink folds of their armpits, felt the warmth and dampness of rare rhino hide. I touched the surprisingly rough fur of their ears, knelt down and examined the pads of their feet as they rolled with each step. I grabbed Bibi's horn and gently shook it, feeling how it was attached. She didn't care.

Mama Bibi had gentle eyes, rimmed with lines that made her look like she hadn't slept in months (blame that baby!), and she looked often at Kayla with affection. Both KJ and Bibi had cobbled skin dusted with sand, funky spade-shaped feet, eager slippery mouths. They were sweet, kind, surprisingly cute.

Once the bananas and supremely disappointing pellets were gone from the bucket, KJ decided he would show off for his audience. He ran between enclosures, swinging his tail and shaking his head. He charged at a hanging canvas toy made from a fire hose. He spun, zooming around the pen boldly. He made peeping noises (rhino vocals are quite high pitched and small!) and played with his mother. We were all quite enamored by his performance and it was clear he was pleased with the attention. The whole attitude was "Look at me, look at me!"

He gently nudged his mother with his horn, following her from pen to pen, and she nudged him back, looking at us. If she were a human she'd have sighed and made a comment about exhausting motherhood. Though rhinos are solitary creatures by nature, the bond between this mother and son was quite clear. They settled, faces pressed close to one another. It made me smile.

These animals had so much personality, so much love for people and each other. It was truly eye opening, enlightening to see them in the flesh, to understand how Douwemout Van der Meer, the main character of my book, fell in love with a rhino in the 1740s. Quite frankly, it was impossible not to fall in love with them.

My questions were answered by Kayla, and I wove them into my book: their skin texture, their unique smell, the color of the fur on their ears, their gentle noises, and the overall grandness of massive rhinos. Then I asked her to be a beta reader for me. A book called The Rhino Keeper better be vetted by its namesake. She happily agreed and I was thrilled. Over the next few months, each time my little family and I ventured to the zoo I sent Kayla a text to see if she was working. When she was, we got to see KJ and Bibi again.

They were often outside, enjoying warmer weather. When Kayla emerged from the barn with buckets of bananas, calling their names, they'd perk up and rush over, happy for the attention. I truly believe they knew us after the second meeting, and when we'd visit they would recognize they'd been fed by us before, so the odds were high of getting a treat, meaning they'd come directly over to the fence by which we stood.

But yesterday, after Kayla posted KJ's face on her Instagram story and I messaged her, saying how in love he looked, she said something that absolutely devastated me.

"I really really need him right now. We had to say goodbye to Bibi this morning and I feel like my whole soul is gone. She was my best friend. I am gutted."

My stomach dropped, my palms grew sweaty. Bibi?? She was in the prime of her life! Two year old son, happy and lovely, strong and whole. But life is unpredictable. Colic, common in horses, exists for rhinos too. And despite all efforts, the incredible staff at the zoo had no choice but to stop Bibi's suffering.

I think about how lucky I am, to have touched that mama rhino's rock-rough skin. To have her slime my hand. It seemed while we were there that baby KJ was the center of attention (how could he not be - he's a baby rhino, so cute!). But I was always drawn to the elegant slowness and the graceful gaze of beautiful Bibi.

These animals are rare. They are precious. The common person, like me, is lucky to see them in a zoo, let alone feed or touch them (which you should only do if you have a trained professional, permission, and instructions). My heart aches today - for Kayla, for KJ, and for the entire staff at the Sedgwick County Zoo.

The loss of an animal is so real for these keepers. But this time, it's real for me, too. I'm grateful to have been anywhere near the rhinos, but more grateful for Kayla to open her rhino world to me and show me what it's like to love one. Bibi, you sweet beautiful lady, I'm so glad you were in my life. Rest easy darling.

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Kayla Jordan
Kayla Jordan
Aug 01, 2023

I keep coming back to this post in my waves of grief. Your words have brought me so much comfort. I keep trying to find the right way to thank you but nothing feels like it says enough.

Thank you for loving Bibi.

Aug 01, 2023
Replying to

Ah Kayla. I can’t stop thinking about you, walking to that enclosure every day and feeling her absence. I’m glad to know you have some small comfort here. I hope I see you soon!

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