"I've known a few rhinos in my day," Jason Watters, Vice President of Wellness and Animal Behavior at the SF Zoo, tells SFist. "They all have a different personalities. Our youngster, Boone, a black rhino for whom we've developed a Twitter persona, @boonetherhino, is just six. You might call him a tween, and he's still getting things figured out, understanding his situation."
For Boone and his fellow rhino, a horned one named Gauhati whom Watters describes as "very playful and confident," captivity isn't always exciting. Fortunately, there are ways that the pair can better engage with their surroundings. "What we want to do is be able to turn the animal's environment on, have it say hey, investigate me a little bit more."
To do that, SF Zoo is in the midst of crowdfunding $15,000 (of which $4,000 has been raised so far) in the next twenty or so days for a first-of-it's-kind rhino toy slash feeder. Basically, the thing would be a giant bluetooth food dispensing soccer ball, a magnified version of aFoobler, which is a Kickstarter-backed "smart puzzle feeder for your dog."
"Animals need to engage with the environment to maximize their psychological well-being," write Watters and the rest of the team. "One of the easiest ways to accomplish this in zoos is to make animals 'work' for their food. We want to build a novel feeding system to engage our rhinos in more active foraging, and assess their behavioral responses."
Currently, says Watters, "We're sort of inching our way there with [the rhinos], preparing the guys for their new ball. Obviously when we develop it there will be food inside of it and these guys have super powerful noses so they'll smell it. But for now we want the animals to put it together that a cue — perhaps a bell or a buzzer — indicates that now is a time that they can get food out of the ball."
"So far we've taken a 55 gallon barrel, put some holes in it, and put some of the food in there. But the holes aren't big enough for the food to get out, just the smell. That gets us away from the possible situation where the rhinos get frustrated."
Yes, frustrated rhinos are definitely a concern. But hey, these guys look like they're just playing.