Utah’s Hogle Zoo, along with community partners, create custom fly-mask for rhino, Princess.
SALT LAKE CITY – Each spring, like clock-work, the pollen picks up, the flies come out and white rhino, Princess, gets red, swollen, irritated eyes.
She’s always had seasonal allergies and every spring it would just flare up,” said zookeeper Melissa Farr. “With the pollen and dust and flies, our routine to keep her comfortable was to flush her eyes and treat her with ointment.” But it was only mildly effective and keepers wondered what they could do to prevent it.
A lot of us grew up around horses and they’ll wear fly masks for the very same reason,” Farr said. “So we began to wonder how to get a fly mask in Princess-size.”
The Zoo scratched its head trying to figure out where to begin, this type of rhino mask has only been tackled once before in Florida. “We called local business A.A. Callister and just asked if they know anyone who makes fly masks, locally,” Farr said. “Lucky for us, they were intrigued enough about the proposition that rather than tell us ‘no, sorry’ they said – ‘well let us think about that!”
A.A. Callister called some of their vendors and found Horseware Ireland – a company specializing in horse products, based out of Dundalk, Ireland.”We reached out to several companies but many of them were not sure how they could help,” said Bridgette Layne with A.A. Callister. “Our sales rep put us in touch with Horseware Ireland and they went above and beyond in making this happen.”
Many, many phone calls and emails later, Team Princess got to work. Layne noted Horseware Ireland worked with their supplier in China for the pattern, making Princess’ fly mask an international work of art.
Hogle Zoo animal care team made numerous measurements for Horseware Ireland. “When we got the first mask we were so excited – and it was grey and pink! We didn’t even ask but they gave her some pink!”
But getting the mask delivered was just the beginning. 39 year-old Princess, a senior citizen rhino, still had a long road ahead of learning what the fly mask was and why her keepers wanted to put this thing over her face. She needed to learn she could still see and eat while wearing it and her brother, 41 year-old George, also had to learn what this new grey and pink item was.Keepers began a process called ‘desensitization’ – getting the animal to be less-sensitive to new and different stimuli.
“It took almost a year getting her trained,” Farr said. “We’d wear her mask ourselves, we’d spend time putting it near George and Princess, we’d practice fastening straps under her chin – it was baby steps. We worked with her every morning.”
Once Princess was used to wearing the mask, they put her outside in the small holding yard to let her get used to shadows and get her footing.
Princess has been comfortable wearing the fly mask and is doing great and George doesn’t seem bothered by his sister’s new accessory.The partnership between Utah’s Hogle Zoo, A.A. Callister and Horseware Ireland has brought immeasurable relief to Princess, peace of mind for her keepers and an interesting talking feature during a visit to the rhino yard.
“There are a lot of people who have never seen a horse fly mask or worry that Princess can’t see at all or that she’s blindfolded,” said keeper Lauren LeCoque. “It’s been fun to show them what her view is like – we tell them it’s like she’s wearing sunglasses.” The Zoo’s education team fashioned some sunglasses out of the same mesh so guests can get a glimpse of what it’s like wearing the mask.
And so far, so good! “Her eyes look great. The pollen has been high, the flies are out and we haven’t seen any flare-ups,” Farr said. “We’re just thrilled! We’re so thankful to both A.A. Callister and Horseware Ireland – Princess thanks you too!”