UConn Student Plays Hands-on Role at Rhino Sanctuary, Part 2

A UConn Today journalist reports on the experiences of a UConn senior whom she met when she traveled to South Africa this past summer. This is the second installment of the story, and the last in a special four-part series. For the first part of this story, click here.

‘I am Mom’

For anywhere from eight to 12 hours a day, Alana Russell ’13 (CANR) served as one of the calf’s devoted caretakers – bottle-feeding him, playing with him, cleaning up after him, sleeping alongside him among bales of straw, and, as he continued to face several medical issues, offering comfort when he was in pain.

Alana Russell '13 (CANR) visits with a black rhino calf, the first resident of a newly established orphanage for baby rhinos in South Africa. Russell spent the summer of 2012 at the orphanage serving as one of the calf's caretakers. (Stefanie Dion Jones/UConn Photo)

Alana Russell ’13 (CANR) visits with a black rhino calf, the first resident of a newly established orphanage for baby rhinos in South Africa. Russell spent the summer of 2012 at the orphanage serving as one of the calf’s caretakers. (Stefanie Dion Jones/UConn Photo)

“To sum it up, I am Mom,” she said, during an onsite interview. “I eat, sleep, and breathe rhino. In the wild, the babies are with their mom for up to two years. [The mother] does everything; they don’t leave her side.”

Russell was one of five caregivers who committed their summer to the rhino’s around-the-clock care, taking turns to cover each shift. The bond between the calf and his small group of foster mothers was unmistakable – he followed them around within his enclosure, looked to them for assurance in the face of an unfamiliar situation, and let out a panicked shriek if they left his line of sight for more than a few minutes.

Exhausting 12-hour shifts with a fast-growing rhino left Russell with the black-and-blues to prove it. “You should see my shins; they’re so bruised,” she said. “I’m not nearly as strong as his mom would be. He chases me around … He’ll try to gore me, basically. It’s play, but it does hurt me.”

Yet upon meeting the rhino orphan, it immediately became clear why she and the other caregivers were giving their time and energy to rehabilitate the animal.

UConn student Alana Russell '13 (CANR) visits with a black rhino calf, the first resident of the world's first dedicated, non-commercial baby rhino orphanage. Russell spent the summer of 2012 at the orphanage in South Africa serving as one of the calf's caretakers.

For up to 12 hours a day, Alana Russell served as one of the calf’s caretakers – feeding him, playing with him, cleaning up after him, and comforting him when he was in pain. (Stefanie Dion Jones/UConn Photo)

Rambunctious and spirited, the five-month-old rhino orphan spent his waking hours darting around, playing ‘tag’ with his caretakers or running toward a suspended punching bag, which he would butt up into the air with his budding bump of a horn. He would approach a newcomer at the fence of his enclosure to nuzzle an astonishingly velvet-soft snout against their palm, his curled lips searching for fingers to suckle, and give watery-eyed, sidelong glances as he munched on the branches of an acacia tree. Then he would lie down with a dramatic sigh of satisfaction, rolling onto one side so that he could rest his head on the lap of a caretaker and await a tender stroke to his face.

“He’s a baby,” said Russell. “He does what a baby does.”

And despite the long hours and physical hazards, she said, at the end of the day she often didn’t want to leave.

A Different Kind of Lifesaving

It’s not every college student that would give up their summer to nurse a dependent animal back to health, but Russell, it turns out, has had more than her fair share of practice when it comes to saving lives.

In summer 2011, she found two feral kittens, just a few weeks old, near her home in Rhode Island. Often missing out on nights out with her friends, she made sure she was home every two hours to bottle-feed the kittens. It was a sacrifice she said she made willingly. Although one of the kittens did not survive, the remaining kitten has become the Russells’ family cat.

For several years, Russell also held a summer job as a lifeguard at Misquamicut State Beach – a paid position, where she enjoyed the time she was able to spend outdoors. “It’s funny,” she says. “It’s like someone recently said to me, now I’m just doing a different kind of lifesaving.”

Russell is quick to point out the playful, affectionate, sometimes mischievous personality of the calf she came to know and love. But she also is realistic: The future of black rhinos is especially dire. Poaching has slashed their population from about 65,000 in 1970 to less than 3,500 today – a decline of nearly 95 percent in the span of roughly one generation.

She is concerned that many people may not think of rhinos – given their immense size, bovine-like appearance, and fairly impassive expressions – as particularly endearing or smart, and may not regard them as worth fighting for.

UConn student Alana Russell '13 (CANR) visits with a black rhino calf, the first resident of the world's first dedicated, non-commercial baby rhino orphanage. Russell spent the summer of 2012 at the orphanage in South Africa serving as one of the calf's caretakers.

Although the orphanage’s intent is to release the rehabilitated rhinos back into the wild, Russell is concerned this may not be possible for the first rescued calf, because of prolonged health issues that have made him over-dependent on humans. (Stefanie Dion Jones/UConn Photo)

Most people will never see this rhino cavort in his space at the orphanage. For fear of inadvertently giving access to poachers, the orphanage is closed to the public. Meanwhile, the ultimate goal remains: to release the orphan rhino back into the wild. Until he is at least 18 months old, the calf will continue to require constant care. But over time, plans are to place him in gradually larger enclosures with less and less human contact and, it is hoped, more and more time with fellow rhinos.

Whether or not the effort will succeed remains to be seen. Part of the problem, Russell explains, is that the calf’s serious health conditions demanded that he be heavily managed – more so than initially expected. She says it may be difficult to release him. “He’s taken to humans. And if he went out to the wild, it might actually be dangerous.”

Three months after rescuing its first resident rhino, the orphanage hosted an official opening in August. The story of the orphaned calf made its way around the world, with media from MSNBC to Al Jazeera English covering the story. It was not long before Russell realized that images of her and the orphan rhino were making international headlines.

The soft-spoken, yet self-assured 21-year-old recognized how fortunate she was to work firsthand with the orphanage and its very first rescued rhino. “[Being at the orphanage] changed me in every which way,” she said. “I’ve matured. I live for another being now. I don’t live for myself. It’s ironic because I came here to help him, but – and it sounds cliché – he helped me. I have a whole new perspective on life. I found a direction for myself.”

With hopes of going on to graduate school following graduation this coming spring, Russell knows she will return to Africa before long.

“Never has anything struck me so much,” she says. “I really feel like I can make a difference. Already, I’m on my way.”

To learn more about the three-week African field ecology course, which fulfills a General Education requirement, visit http://bit.ly/RgJM3C. To learn more and to support the Rhino Orphanage, ‘Like’ facebook.com/TheRhinoOrphanage or follow @RhinoOrphanage on Twitter.