JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A zookeeper was injured Tuesday morning when she was struck in the stomach by the horn of a rhinoceros during a routine training session at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, the zoo's executive director said.
A zoo spokeswoman said the keeper was hurt but was alert and able to speak when she was taken to a hospital for evaluation. The zoo announced Tuesday evening that it had heard from the keeper, who said, "Everything is OK."
“We are extremely relieved and happy to know that our colleague is doing well," Jacksonville Zoo executive director Tony Vecchio said. "We are grateful for the outpouring of support and concern during this difficult time.”
The zoo's spokeswoman told News4Jax the keeper was kept at the hospital overnight for observation and was released Wednesday morning.
The spokeswoman said zoo staff members are working to learn more about what happened with the male Southern white rhino, named Archie, and details will be shared as they become available.
"I know you have a million questions about what happened today. I wish I had a million answers for you, but I don't. We are still investigating the situation,” Vecchio said Tuesday afternoon.
Vecchio said Archie has been a popular fixture at the zoo for decades after he was welcomed there in 1975.
Archie is 50 years old, the third oldest male Southern white rhino in captivity. He’s fathered 13 children, and he's so popular, Bold City Brewery named an ale after him.
Vecchio explained that the training Archie was doing Tuesday morning happens every day with all of the animals at the zoo and is intended to help make medical examinations easier. The rhinos are taught to open their mouths, lift their feet and how to go through bloodwork.
“The training is pretty hands-on, although there's always a safety barrier between the keeper and the animal," Vecchio said. "Keepers know to treat every animal as if it's potentially dangerous."
Vertical and horizontal bars stand between the keeper and the rhino during training.
Vecchio said Archie is known to have a good disposition and to be easy to work with and emphasized that Archie was never out of his enclosure Tuesday and there was no danger to guests at the zoo.
Archie did escape once previously when a keeper left the gate to his barn open in 2010. It took 15 men to get him back inside the enclosure.
The rhinos are the second-largest animals at the zoo after the elephants, Vecchio said.
He said staff will investigate Tuesday's incident and make recommendations about how to improve safety in the future.
According to the Jacksonville Zoo's website, Southern white rhinos have been on exhibit at the zoo for over 50 years. The first pair arrived in April 1967, and a dozen births have occurred at the zoo, making the Jacksonville Zoo one of the more successful white rhino producers.
The rhinos at the zoo are housed in the East African exhibit area.