Remembering Randa

By Sandy Masuo

Randa was a gentle giant. Photo by Linnea Milam

Every year, zookeepers across the country organize bowlathon fundraisers for rhinoceros conservation. Since it began in 1990, Bowling for Rhinos (BFR) has generated more than $7 million for community conservation projects in Asia and Africa. These grassroots programs have consistently reduced the numbers of rhinos-and many other species-lost to poaching. Since 2009, the Los Angeles chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) has raised more than $376,000-more than any other chapter. In honor of L.A. Zoo’s tenth BFR event and as a tribute to the Zoo’s beloved Indian rhinoceros Randa, who passed away late last year, the theme of the 2018 bowlathon is “Remembering Randa.”

Randa was born on October 5, 1969 in Basel, Switzerland. She arrived at the L.A. Zoo on November 22, 1974 from the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas. Those who work with rhinos often point out how special these gentle giants are and Randa was no exception. She was a remarkable ambassador for her species and also a symbol of resillience, not only from a conservation standpoint but also as an individual.

Randa was a celebrity and if Andy Warhol had met her, he would surely have wanted to make her a pop art star. The official 2018 Bowling for Rhinos T-shirt design.

In 2007, Randa developed what appeared to be a fungal infection of her horn, and keepers (with Randa’s cooperation) patiently removed the affected section of the horn. But the symptoms persisted. In 2009, most of her horn was surgically removed. This revealed what turned out to be squamous cell carcinoma, a type of aggressive skin cancer that also occurs in humans. Zoo veterinarians consulted with renowned human and veterinary doctors and decided to remove the entire horn and then follow up with radiation treatments. Treating Randa’s cancer was no easy feat due to her advanced age, 40 years at the time, and her weight of two tons. The Zoo received tremendous community support and collaborated with surgeons, oncologists, and radiation specialists from the UCLA Medical Center and Xoft, Inc. Randa was officially declared to be in complete remission on August 19, 2011.

Randa went on to be the highlight of the behind-the-scenes Indian Rhino Encounter, allowing guests the chance to get up close to her and learn more about these endangered animals in the wild. Randa retired from the special encounters in 2015 as her health began declining due to arthritis and other age-related issues, but she continued to inspire the Zoo community. When she passed away on November 6, 2017, at the age of 48, she was the oldest of her species on record within zoos worldwide. She spent her life raising awareness of the plight of rhinos in the wild and forming compelling connections with Zoo volunteers, guests, and staff.

As a tribute to Randa, and to kick off the 2018 Bowling for Rhinos season, we’d like to share memories of this very special animal from some of the people who worked with her most closely—her keepers.

Randa had close connections with her caretakers. Photo by Jamie Pham

Animal Keeper Stephanie Zielinski was responsible for much of the considerable aftercare for the duration of Randa’s cancer surgeries and led the animal care team that worked closely with Randa to teach her behaviors that were key to her recovery. Fortunately, long before her diagnosis, Randa had a large vocabulary of behaviors and a close relationship with her caretakers.

“The animals never cease to amaze me. I’ve come to understand many life lessons in my role as an animal keeper. I’ve had some of my greatest teachers in the animals themselves. Along the way, certain animals stand out in my mind. Randa is definitely one of those special animals.

“For many years the ‘rhino barn’ was the go-to place for sharing lunchtime stories, food, and laughter. Many lifelong friendships started there and Randa was the center of it all. She was at every lunchtime chat session with one of us scratching her or enjoying her own lunch along with us. She was a sweet and very social animal. Her beautiful purr would resonate through your whole body, and that deep contented purr is one of the sounds I can still hear when I think of her.

“When Randa was diagnosed with cancer we all felt the weight of it. Could we do all the required aftercare? Would she participate in her training even when she didn’t feel good? What I knew for sure was that Randa was strong and willing to participate in all things normally. It wasn’t an option to not move forward.

“Often the animals are not as willing to participate for the vet staff but will for their regular keepers. Randa had seven surgeries. It was intense to say the least and one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced as an animal keeper. It was amazing to be a part of such a huge undertaking. What I witnessed was a patient and trusting animal who time and time again came when asked. There were so many details, treatments, and procedures. I look back and think, ‘How in the world did we do this?’ With Randa’s help is how.

“The incredible relief I felt at her cancer-free diagnosis is not describable really. It was such joy. All of the dedicated vet staff and animal keepers who had worked tirelessly to help her were rewarded with seven more beautiful years with Randa. Something big happened with this experience. It shifted a lot of people’s perspectives on what was possible. This beautiful rhino allowed so many Zoo visitors and staff to get to know her and her amazing story of survival. It was a gift to have been Randa’s keeper for those years. She will forever live in a special place in my heart—a place that knows new levels of trust and hope.”

Animal Keeper Stephanie Zielinski oversaw much of Randa's cancer treatment and recovery. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Zielinski

Senior Animal Keeper Robin Noll has been with the L.A. Zoo since 1984. Though she never worked with Randa directly as an animal keeper, Noll appreciates what Randa meant to the Zoo and to her personally.

“After I became a supervisor, I had some family members come to visit the Zoo and they wanted to see her. At the time, Stephanie Zielinski was really overseeing Randa’s recovery from the cancer treatments, so I checked with her to see if it would be OK. She said that she could’t be there but that it was fine to go ahead with the behind-the-scenes visit. So I brought my guests to her barn and they stayed in hall while I went to the stall to bring her over.

“Even though I had worked with giraffes, which are big animals, I was a little uncomfortable because she was really large. But as soon as she was near us, she started to vocalize and nod her head and since that was really my first experience with her I wasn’t sure how to interpret that. Later, when I asked Stephanie about it, she explained that that’s how Randa greeted her keepers and that those were behaviors she exhibited when she was excited about visitors—which was amazing considering she had been through so many veterinary procedures. Her keepers were so in touch with her and their dedication was so important to her longevity and qualty of life. Nothing can live forever, but we were fortunate to have had so much time with a special animal like Randa.”

Indian rhinoceros Randa and her crew circa 2008. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Zielinski

Even though rhinoceroses might seem to be a world away from horses, they are actually close relatives. Animal Keeper Jenn Guenewald grew up with horses, and the family resemblances became clear once she started working with Randa.

“It took me a while to get used to Randa’s individual personality and responses. She would give us subtle cues as to how she felt, which is exactly what a horse would do. They flick their ears, toss their heads, or make small grunts and other sounds. They shift their skin when they’re frustrated with something. They’ll swish their tails and you’ll hear it and know I’d better stop what I’m doing. When we worked on Randa’s feet while she was lying down, we would look for those cues. She would generally sleep, so if her eyes were closed we knew everything was OK. If she opened her eyes, that meant we should start thinking about finishing up. And if she started to wag her ears, swish her tail, or grind her teeth, we knew those were frustrated sounds. She was telling us she’s done so we should leave. And then she would kind of look at us like, ‘OK, thanks!’ And then she’d lie back down and stretch out like ‘Ah… finally they’re gone.’

“Randa was in her 20s when she had a keeper who worked on many behaviors with her—back then, that was a new step for animal care. Then she got Stephanie Zielinski, whose background is training with sea lions, and then me, who just likes training. In between was a keeper who was not as fond of training. So when I came in, Stephanie gave me a list of the behaviors Randa knew. She picked them up again instantly! She had remembered for years.

“One aspect of working with animals that people often don’t understand is how much time goes into a subtle behavior like Randa staying with us. I haven’t told her to leave yet, and she could leave if she wanted, but she chooses to stay. It takes forever to get to that point. And you want to do everything right. I have to know everything she’s telling me. I need to know if something’s wrong right away. There were days where I would be thinking, ‘Is she picking up her foot or is she just shifting her weight?’ And I’d call Robin Noll and tell her she should come down and look at Randa because I felt like something might be wrong. So Robin would come down and tell me she didn’t see anything wrong and I’d go oh, it’s just me. So many times we’d do that with Randa because we wanted to make sure she was as comfortable and happy as possible.

“It’s a learning curve for us with every animal. It takes time. I worked with Randa for over eight years and it took probably three of those years to feel like I could train another person to know these cues. Part of me feels like Randa is such a special case. If we get a new, younger rhino, I don’t know if I could do all that. All that training takes so much time to establish, which would be fun in its own way. Randa was so great in that she let us do so much with her. If we get another rhino, I’ll be fascinated to see how he or she responds. I hope we have that opportunity.”

During the 43 years that Randa made her home at the L.A. Zoo, she endeared herself to visitors, volunteers, and staff. Photo by Tad Motoyama