Teaching An “Old” Rhino And Bear Healthy Tricks

"The one we're working on now is side injections..."

Pet owners know how long it can take to train a pet, whether it’s to use a litter box or sit on command. But when your pet understands, it makes it worth all the hard work. Zookeepers at the Great Plains Zoo have been patiently training two powerful animals… to make sure they’re staying happy and healthy.

Weighing in at nearly three thousand pounds…

“He loves food and that he really loves us too.”

Jubba, pronounced like Joo-ba, is one of two endangered Eastern Black Rhinos at the Great Plains Zoo in Sioux Falls. Being born in 1996, Jubba is 20 years old, the other is a 19 year old female named Imara.

Both Jubba and Imara are two of around 740 total Eastern Black Rhino’s in the world and two of only 59 that are in captivity in 25 zoos across the nation that participate in AZA, Association of Zoos and Aquariums. 

“He’s a little bit of a goofball which is also kinda fun to work with,” and one half of a special friendship with Paul Zerfas for nearly four years.

‘They are extremely smart,” Zerfas said motioning to Jubba, “so they pick up on traits really fast especially when we use the positive re-enforcement that we have.”

The positive re-enforcement is rewarding the animals with treats when they do the correct behavior. Through rewards like handfuls of fruits and vegetables Jubba shows his molars, eyes and feet.

“Lay down in order to kinda present those soft pads, so if he’s walking funny then we can see a lot easier than trying to lift up a heavy leg,” Paul Zerfas, a zookeeper at the Great Plains Zoo who’s worked with Jubba over the last four years explained.

Those are all ways to help Paul make sure his friend is staying healthy. But Jubba isn’t the only one getting a lesson.

“Teeth. All the way back… open.”

“She’s just really incredible; you come in different days and just learn different parts of her personality, how she acts…”

At 22 years old, an old Alaskan Brown Bear learning new tricks.

“Kenai is a really special bear, she’s been here since she was about six months old,” explained Shawn Bell, a zookeeper at the Great Plains Zoo. Kenai arrived with her brother, Smokey, in June of 1994. Unfortunately, Smokey developed a tumor in his right forearm along with other tumors and heart failure. He was humanely euthanized in 2012.  

“She came from the wild and she’s been here and almost every keeper that’s worked here has gotten the opportunity to work with her,” Bell explained.

Shawn Bell has been her trainer for the last year and a half.

“We give her a big reward so she kinda knows what she did was good,” Bell explained because what they’ve been working on is very important for her and the staff at the zoo.

“The one we’re working on now is side injections so bears, like humans, get sick sometimes,” Bell said.

So in a series of cages designed to keep her and Shawn safe, typically smaller cages, she’ll inject herself. Less stress for her and Shawn.

“A good spot to do it is right in the shoulder. So, in order to get her to do that, we kind of train her… and we trained her with her perfume,” Shawn Bell, a zookeeper at the Great Plains Zoo who’s works with Kenai explained. “So we spray it, she rubs on it and as soon as she touches it [the needle] we throw her a bunch of food.”

Staying healthy while smelling like a lady, “Just came across perfume one day and she went crazy for it rolling all over her exhibit, back holdings… on whatever you sprayed it on,” Bell explained, laughing. “So now we’ve accumulated a group of about twenty, thirty, bottles of perfume that we’ll mix together and spray and she loves it.”

Kenai’s prefers perfume made by Avon and especially likes the Bubble Bath scent.
The perfumes and scents have been cleared by vets for her to wear.

In addition to using sensory training like spraying perfumes, the Great Plains Zoo also trains their animals using ways that re-enforce natural behaviors and instincts such as hanging lettuce and fish from a hanging tree for encourage foraging behavior that brown bears typically do.

Soon, Kenai will see changing coming to her home. In 2017, the Great Plains Zoo is planning to expand the Bear Canyon to include a meadow as well as demonstration window. If you’d like to learn more as well as make a donation, click here