The Rhino Rescue

Zoo Internquest is a seven week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

Last Thursday, I got to visit the Rhino Rescue Center located at the Safari park to learn about the program and the initiatives San Diego Zoo Global is taking to save the northern white rhino. I also learned about the people who work at the center, including what they do each day, and how they came to work at the Safari Park.

Our tour guide was Weston Popichak, a Senior Animal Trainer and  Zoo Keeper at the Rhino Rescue Center. Mr. Popichak, as his title suggests, is one of five trainers that work with the rhinos. He and the rest of his team focus on training husbandry behaviors through positive reinforcements and operant conditioning. He emphasized, that as a trainer, he can’t force a 6,000 pound animal to do anything. Everyday, he has to work with the animal to train the desired behavior, and that ultimately, it comes down to what the animal is willing to do during that training session. Husbandry behaviors often involve getting the animal ready for different medical exams. These can range from teaching the animal to stand or move a certain way, or getting the animal more comfortable with the exam process. As Mr. Popichak put it, the key to being an effective trainer is forming a strong bond with the animal. In order to ensure each trainer has a strong bond with at least one rhino, each trainer is the primary trainer for either one or two rhinos. In addition to this, each trainer also works as a secondary trainer for an additional rhino, and outside of this system, every trainer must be bonded with every rhino. In the picture below, Mr. Popichak can be seen with one of the Rhino Rescue Center’s rhinos.

However, Mr. Popichak’s work is not limited to just training. Although his work varies from day to day, every day Mr. Popichak will perform a visual check-up on each of the rhinos and provide the morning hay. Afterwards, Mr. Popichak and his coworkers will meet in their office and plan out their day, figuring out what needs to be done. He described three main tasks that occur: food, cleaning, and feces. The feces are sent to a lab at the Institute for Conservation Research and areused as a non-invasive method for measuring the rhinos’ hormone levels. This information is used in the breeding program. Aside from these three main duties, the trainers will also work in moving the rhinos to where they need to be, they will spend time training the animals one on one, and will help with any tentative medical exams. Throughout the day the trainers will also try to add in as much enrichment for the animals as possible. This means plenty of creative thinking on part of the trainers. At the end of the day, Mr. Popichak will record what was done throughout the day and what still needs to be done the following day. However, the part of the job I found most interesting were the frequent ultrasounds of the rhinos’ ovaries. The Rhino Rescue Center does monthly ultrasounds to track the development of follicles and eggs, which are used to track the rhino’s reproductive cycle. However, these ultrasounds aren’t like human ultrasounds though. Due to the thick skin of the rhinos, the ultrasound must be done directly on the ovaries which means the trainers have to get the rhino to go into a special stall. The trainers have to get very close and personal with the rhino as well. Despite this not so glamorous part of the job, Mr. Popichak says he wouldn’t want to do anything else.

Before working with rhinos at the Rhino Rescue Center, Mr. Popichak used to work with the elephants at the Safari Park, and before that, he went to Moorpark College, one of the two colleges in the U.S. that specializes in exotic animal training and zookeeping. At Moorpark, he learned how to work with and train almost every type of animal. He described the program as time consuming but also very informative. He managed to get his job workingwith the elephants afterwards. It started as an internship and soon turned into being an exhibit attendant. It then turned into being a keeper, and finally into being a senior keeper. However, Mr. Popichak made it clear to use that to work at the Rhino Rescue Center, someone didn’t have to go this route specifically.

On Thursday, like any day in the Zoo InternQuest program, I got to learn about another great job working with animals. Getting to learn so much about the Rhino Rescue Center, as well as Mr. Popichak’s job, has just given me one more route I could take if I wanted to.

Amber, Careers Team,
Week Four, Winter 2018

Add a comment

Due to the increased volume on our many social media channels, we are unable to respond to all comments or questions. Comments are now posted automatically but may be removed if deemed inappropriate according to the San Diego Zoo Global Blog Comment Policy.