By John Kelly
Monday, November 10, 2008; B03
If Rufus the white rhinoceros had died in his native Africa, it's easy to imagine what would have become of his mortal remains. The carrion eaters would have moved in -- hyenas and vultures and beetles -- and before too long, there wouldn't have been much left of Rufus. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Another turn of the circle of life.
But Rufus didn't die in Africa. He died in Norfolk, and when I heard of his sad demise -- killed by another rhinoceros Oct. 27 at the Virginia Zoo -- I wondered: What happened next?
What do you do with 4,500 pounds of dead rhino?
It turns out that Rufus's death set in motion a carefully prescribed series of steps. Although the zoo's longest inhabitant is gone -- he had been there 34 years, arriving as a 2-year-old from Africa -- people will be learning from him for years to come.
Because rhinos are endangered, they're covered by something called a Species Survival Plan, administered by the Aquariums and Zoo Association. These SSPs stipulate that an immediate autopsy must be performed to determine cause of death -- what zoos call a necropsy.
"We're required to collect tissue samples from the animals," Greg Bockheim, director of the Virginia Zoo, said. "Those samples are sent to various approved scientists or colleges performing research projects. . . . Samples are taken from the tip of the tongue to the tip of tail."
Most samples are small -- about the size of a fingertip -- but often scientists request complete organs for study. How can you ever learn how much a rhino's liver weighs or how an elephant's heart works if you never get your hands on one?
Then the animal is examined on a microscopic level. Histopathology looks at such things as its genetic makeup. Distinctive parts of the animal -- a pelt, a skull, a tooth, a claw -- might be removed for use as teaching tools called "biofacts."
"I believe we have saved his horn," Greg said of Rufus's distinctive protuberance, which is not actually a horn at all but an impressive assemblage of compressed keratin fibers of the sort found in hair and fingernails.
It was the preparation of some biofacts that once caused a misunderstanding at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. A local TV station's investigative news team arrived unannounced at the zoo, brandishing a videotape that showed animal skulls arrayed on the roof of the bear grotto, out of sight of visitors.
Is this, the reporter demanded, evidence of ritualistic cult activity?
Um, no, said the Cleveland zoo's Sue Allen. It's evidence of natural decay. The zoo would put bones up there to let the flesh decompose naturally before using them to illustrate animal anatomy.
"Nature does a much better job of cleaning skulls than we can do," Sue said. (As for how the station got the video, an outside roofing contractor working at the zoo shot it, convinced of a scoop.)
Even after all the sampling and the de-horning, there's a lot left of an animal like Rufus. He was lifted onto a truck, discreetly covered and taken to some land the zoo owns off-site. And there was dug a very large hole.
Some zoos cremate animal remains. The San Diego Zoo has a relatively new device called a tissue digester, a big tank that uses enzymes to completely dissolve the body. The Virginia Zoo buries its animals in unmarked graves at an undisclosed location: undisclosed because there are creepy people who might want to dig up a rhinoceros, unmarked because, well, these are animals, not humans.
But that doesn't mean their passing is unnoticed, their lives unmourned.
"We're deciding on a memorial service for Rufus," said Greg, the zoo director. "We leave that up to the animal care staff, because they had the closest relationship with Rufus."
Rufus spent his entire adult life at the Virginia Zoo, but he never stopped being that splendidly belligerent creature that so famously stalks the African plain. A gate in the enclosure was mistakenly left open, allowing him to come in contact with the zoo's other white rhino, Alfred. In the wild, two male rhinos would charge each other, and that's what happened. No one knows who charged first, but Rufus ended up with a ruptured liver.
And so Rufus died a rhino's death, not put to sleep in his dotage but mortally wounded at the end of a rival's horn. I like to think it's how he would have preferred to go.