Keeper of the kingdom

Training rhinos is all in a day’s work for this NC State alumna

It was an exciting spring at the Animal Kingdom in Walt Disney World, where NC State University grad Heather Wilcox is an animal keeper. In February, two new baby rhinos – a boy, on Feb. 1, and a girl, on Feb. 18 – were born at the Animal Kingdom, which is also celebrating its 17th anniversary. The male is “our first fourth-generation rhino,” says Wilcox, whose duties include training rhinos in behaviors to aid in their health and well-being care.

Wilcox, who is an advocate lead trainer for two white rhinos and a spotted hyena, came to the Orlando park in 2012. And it’s been an experience-packed three years: At first she worked nights at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, working with some 30 species of animals. Then she cared for hippos in the Little Ituri Forest exhibit, part of the Kilimanjaro Safaris. She has also been on staff in the park’s Asia area, working with tigers.

Now in the east savanna region of the safari, she focuses on and leads the training for the southern white rhinoceros and spotted hyena, but also can be called upon to train or care for cheetahs, lions, warthogs, ostriches and yellow-billed storks, as well as giraffes, zebras, addax, bontebok and slender-horned gazelles – not to mention “a lot of additional responsibilities and projects I have added to my routine and project time,” she says.

As a child, Wilcox would often travel with her mother from their Pinehurst home to the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, where her mother volunteered. Her affinity for animal care would lead her to NC State, where she earned her 2011 bachelor’s degree in zoology, a curriculum then housed in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She also has experience in shark research, in breeding areas south of Naples, Florida, where she netted and tagged sharks and sawfish.

“I always preferred carnivore species, always had cats as pets, and that evolved as an interest into bigger cats,” she says.

Now, she says, “I like the diversity of my area, everything from carnivores to hoof stock to birds. They have their own personalities for sure. Some are more willing and easier to train, some more reactive to food.”

She works four 10-hour days a week. “Our first two days are late days where we will come in around 8 a.m. and work until 7 p.m. These hours will change as daylight extends later into the night,” she says. “Our last two days of our workweek we open and work 5 a.m. until 4 p.m. The park doesn’t open until hours later, and most of our guests have no idea we have already been working and watching the sun rise each morning!”

Southern white rhinoceros
Wilcox leads the training of the southern white rhinoceros at the park.

Her basic duties include the general care, feeding, cleaning, medicating and well-being observations of the animals in her collection. “We do training for each of our animals to some extent,” she says.

She also is a point animal keeper in charge of processing fecal samples for lion, zebra, white rhino and giraffe, to support endocrine research for breeding programs with these species and track their cycles.

“It is very tough to pick a favorite animal that I work with because the species are so different and there are different things I appreciate about each of them. I have to say that the rhinos have really surprised me, and I didn’t think I would enjoy them as much as I do. These animals face so many challenges in the wild, such as poaching, so I am thankful I have the opportunity to bond with these amazing animals and share that passion,” she says.

“Hyenas are new to Animal Kingdom, and I have also really enjoyed establishing a training program for them and am constantly amazed by their intelligence and curiosity,” she says. “The hyenas are not yet available for the public to see. That happens next year in a night safari program.”

The behaviors she and her group train are to aid in medical procedures or maintain behaviors which allow easier examinations of certain areas on the animal.

“For example,” she says, “with our rhinos we train open mouth behaviors to examine the teeth and inside of the mouth.” Also, she says, the rhinos are trained for voluntary blood draws, “when they line up and we can draw blood from the inner area of their legs.”

She and her colleagues also train the animals to target a buoy on a stick – to touch it with their lip to earn a reward – a process which helps the staff to move the animals to a desired spot or align them for a physical exam. “Sometimes they’ll be excited about food, so we work for a gentle touch,” says Wilcox.

“We do everything from scale training (to allow for voluntary weight monitoring) to ultrasound training to vaccine desensitization. All of our training involves operant conditioning and positive reinforcement.”

And just how do you train the world’s second-largest land animal? Techniques can include the trainer tapping the animal’s upper lip and blowing a whistle when it hits the desired behavior.

“Rhinos are very food motivated,” Wilcox says. “They know the whistle means food. They get a lot of hay and grain formulated for them. Alfalfa is given as a treat, but that’s very high-calorie, so it’s just used as a motivation for training or given to nursing mothers.

“Our day consists of lifting a lot of hay bales!”

As for what surprises her about the rhinos, Wilcox says, “It’s neat to see them get up and come over in the morning. They recognize us. They have big toys – balls called boomer balls – and they push them around in the mud. There’s also a big brush on a clothesline type thing that they rub against.”

Enrichment is also a huge part of their day, something Wilcox calls “a very essential addition to the lives of animals in captivity. It’s anything we can add to their environment to make it more exciting for them.” It includes anything from wallow maintenance and construction for the white rhinos, to scents or spices, feeder puzzle toys or plants for the hyenas.

So far, Wilcox and her team are working to establish behaviors with animals that had no prior training before coming to the park. These activities include getting the animal to calmly eat off a meat stick, to target to a buoy on a stick “to move them around and examine their bodies,” to stand “which also lets us examine their underside,” and to sit “for scale training and voluntary weights.”

The training comes very much into play when moving the animals to desired locales.

Animal Kingdom warthogs
These warthogs live on the east savanna of the Animal Kingdom.

“They stay in a barn, in stalls, at night, and some like to stay out in their section of the savanna,” Wilcox says. “But generally they like to come in, because they get their grain at night. We bang three times on the metal door, which cues them to come in 45 minutes before sunset. (The cheetah’s cue is the tambourine.) They associate sounds with food and are rewarded when they come in.”

When it comes to overall animal care, every facet is monitored at Animal Kingdom, Wilcox says. “The nutritionist oversees all food enrichment. Anything behavioral, the husbandry department oversees; and managers and curators oversee safety.”

Her own journey to Animal Kingdom began with her education at NC State, where, she says, “my classes with my zoology degree built my foundation of knowledge in the field.” Among her favorite courses were endocrinology with Dr. Russell Borski and animal behavior with Dr. Miles Engell, “which I use every day in my job.”

After graduating, she immediately did an internship with The Conservators’ Center in Mebane for the summer of 2011. “This gave me the opportunity to work with a variety of carnivore species (my initial interest). After my internship ended, I moved to Naples, and I landed a job with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.”

She did field work with Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, aiding in shark research projects in the Gulf and also doing surveys in the Everglades. “I did education outreach programs with the conservancy, as well,” she says. “I worked with them for almost a year, as I built contacts with Disney and traveled to Orlando to interview and become a known face for the company, expressing persistent interest in Disney’s Animal Kingdom.”

The great part about coming into Animal Kingdom as a night keeper, she says, “was that I had the opportunity to learn the entire park and network with every team of animal keepers in every area. I had the chance to assist every team with any overnight medical monitoring or emergency procedures; witnessed so many births overnight for giraffe, impala, rhino, etc., that I lost count; and was on a bottle-feeding team for warthog, impala, Thompson’s gazelles, bontebok and springbok.

“I spent a year on the night team with the challenging schedule before I transitioned to a day team, but my experiences were irreplaceable.”

Now, Wilcox says, “My favorite thing about my job is waking up, going to work and saying good morning to the animals that most people aren’t even blessed to see, much less get to know their personalities.

Some days I really have to stop and reflect on how lucky I am to have a job I have such a passion for. Every day has a different routine, and although it is a very physical job, it is also a mental challenge – you always have to be careful and aware of everything you do.”

That was certainly true this past April, when Wilcox put in extra hours caring for and bottle-feeding the new baby rhino after his mother rejected him.

“I enjoy that my job will always have more to learn, and the knowledge is limitless – everything from animal husbandry, to research, to guest interaction,” she says. “Sharing my passion is very rewarding.” – Terri Leith