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Jacksonville zoo offers close-up look at animal training

Keepers work with largest animals to get them comfortable for exams

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Nearly two months after a scary incident at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens involving a white rhinoceros and a zookeeper, News4Jax got a behind-the-scenes look Friday at the zoo's animal training exercises.

Keeper Pamela Robie, 31, was hospitalized Feb. 26 when 50-year-old rhino Archie got startled during an exercise and struck her, flipping her into the air over the bars of the training chute before striking her again. A report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said the incident was over in about 10 seconds and Robie never lost consciousness.

She was released from the hospital the next day and has since recovered from her minor injuries and returned to work.

As a precaution, the zoo has changed some of the protocols around the rhino training exercises.

“There are some rules now about how far you can reach in when you’re working with these animals,” said Tony Vecchio, the zoo's executive director.

Keepers who work with the zoo's largest animals aren't trying to get them to do tricks. Instead, the aim of the training is to get the animals to be comfortable when interacting with their handlers in the chutes so that they stay calm during medical procedures, such as shots and dental exams. 

“If they have any wound treatment, we can just get in here while they’re munching on some treats,” rhino trainer Janel Jankowski said. “You can get them to put their feet up on blocks to work on their toenails.”

Thandi the elephant, Brisbe the cassowary and Gabby the rhino all had training sessions Friday. Gabby has had three babies with Archie, the 4,000-pound white rhino who was involved in the February incident.

The rhinos spend the majority of their time in their exhibit but seem to really look forward to the training sessions because they get a lot of love and a lot of treats and it’s mentally stimulating for them, officials said.

The relationships between the keepers and the animals are the result of hundreds of hours of work.

The zoo says the training exercises are critical for healthy animals, and zoo officials are happy to report that Archie and his trainer are both doing well.