Adventures in rhino sitting

Who would have thought a rhinoceros can be so much like a horse?

Both eat hay and grains. Before evolution gave them hooves, horses—like rhinos—had three toes. Both vocalize with huffs and snorts.

For Ashley Fortner, that was a perfect match. The George Mason University senior, who grew up in Virginia Beach tending to her family’s three horses, worked a summer internship, helping oversee 40 rhinoceros at White Oak Conservation in Yulee, Fla.

The difference, Fortner said, is that when interacting with a dangerously temperamental rhino, “You have to have a fence between you at all times.”

The internship was important for Fortner, an integrative studies major concentrating in applied global conservation, as it correlated to her short-term career goal of being an animal keeper.

A journalism major as a freshman, Fortner’s career arc changed after coming across a pamphlet for the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation in Front Royal, Va.

Considering her family had an animal-sitting business and, regarding pets, “I probably had one of everything,” she said, Fortner readily took to studying wildlife, conservation and the environment.

This semester at Smithsonian-Mason she will work with Elizabeth Freeman, associate professor of conservation studies, investigating how to use technology to study the birthing and parenting habits of red pandas.

“Ashley wants to learn and absorb,” Freeman said. “That’s the type of student I want to feed, one who is open to working with other species and doing the less-glamorous things.”

“Mason has been a great experience,” Fortner said. “I’ve heard about people at other colleges who haven’t had the opportunities I’ve had and the staff to push those opportunities.”

As for the care and feeding of rhinos, one size doesn’t fit all, she said.

White rhinos are lazy but curious, Fortner explained. Black rhinos are feisty. Indian rhinos are vocal. Each, though, is food motivated, which means moving them around their enclosure through an elaborate gate system when cleaning their living space is easier with the lure of a snack.

“The feedback I’ve gotten is that she is very attuned to her surroundings,” said Laura Gruber, conservation training programs coordinator at White Oak, a 12,000-acre facility, which shelters many threatened species. “She has a good baseline understanding of conservation and animal care as a whole.”

And how rhinos can be just like horses.