A Bactrian camel, a rhinoceros and an onager walk into a bar… well, not really, but close.
Last week I attended the National Association of Science Writers meeting in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State hosted this meeting which is a mix of workshops on practice and sessions on cutting-edge science. On the last day there was a field trip. We drove 90 minutes east from Columbus and turned into a road that would have looked more comfortable in Colorado. After a bit of meandering, we arrived at the entrance to The Wilds, a non-profit conservation park located on the site of a former coal strip mine.
First, we met Eastern Hellbenders and found out why they are called “snot otters.” When they get scared, they excrete slime through their skin. The Wilds has a program of raising and returning to the rivers and streams in the wild these reclusive amphibians.
Finally, we got into a covered, but open vehicle and proceeded through the park. Turned a corner and suddenly there were two bactrian camels from central Asia, a rhinoceros from the northern Indian peninsula and a group of Persian onagers, wild asses from Iran. They don’t usually live together, but there they were, shoving each other out of the way to get to the feed that was just dumped for them. The Wilds method of making sure we got to see animals.
Although they all live in different places, they are all grazing animals and so roam the reconstructed prairie and cold weather grasslands. The rhinos will soon go to their enclosure, not really liking Ohio winters. We didn’t get to see the giraffes because they had already decided it was too cold and were in their very tall house.
In other parts of the Wilds we saw a small herd of Przewalski’s Wild Horses from Mongolia, the only species of horse never domesticated and almost extinct. Also Grevy’s Zebras and other endangered animals. The Wilds also has a herd of about 120 head of bison, African spotted dogs and a wide variety of deer and elk.
One of the oddest grazers was the Sichuan Takin, an animal that lives in the bamboo forests loved by pandas and most closely related to sheep and goats. Oddly, if you mentally remove the horn, the profile looks like that of a giant guinea pig.
As for predators, a pair of cheetahs came down from the top of their large pasture to view us through the fence. The world’s fastest accelerating animal, they wear out rapidly and sometimes have no energy left to consume their prey. The African spotted dogs and dholes are pack hunting dogs and so are also kept away from the grazers.
But the highlight of the trip was the very last stop. There, in a large pen was a year-old male southern white rhinoceros. He was new to the Wilds and had not yet been released into the pastures. I don’t know where he came from, but he had apparently never had that much space before. For such large animals, they are amazingly graceful moving from a walk, to a trot, to a canter — mimicking the gaits of horses. He was frolicking, running, jumping, turning. A little bit of this was showing off, but it was obvious he was very happy having so much space.
He was also not shy of people, coming right up to the fence where we could pet him. I petted him and scratched him behind the ear. His head tilted the way a dog’s does when scratched there. He was happy. I was happy.
I petted a rhinoceros. Who would have thought?