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A horse of a different colour...

Horses are bred in various shades of grey. But the animal confined in one of the Equine clinic stables recently was more than just an unusual shade of grey – it wasn’t a horse at all, but a white rhino with a typical rhino-grey hide!

‘Noster’ was 15 months old and very sick indeed. In fact, ironically, in keeping with his surroundings, he had colic – a potentially life-threatening intestinal disease that commonly affects horses (and other herbivorous species). Unlike colic in babies though, which is uncomfortable and easily remedied, colic in horses and their kin is much more serious. Colic symptoms (bloat; pain; anorexia) in these animals are usually the result of food or other ingested material becoming impacted. Unfortunately, the weight of the impacted material more often than not causes the stomach and/or intestines to displace and twist leading to obstruction which quickly results in peritonitis, shock and death.

Noster was brought in by a private veterinarian who has a wildlife practice in the Thabazimbi district. He had been in their care since he was found last October shot in the foot and left for dead by the poachers who killed his mother for her horns. He was only 8 months old at the time and still totally dependent on his mother for milk and lessons in feeding and survival. The veterinary nurse who works at the practice became Noster’s surrogate ‘mum’ and taught him to drink from a bottle, and then later, painstakingly encouraged him to learn to eat grass and the plants he would usually eat in the wild.

As a result, Noster was partly tame, and it was possible to handle him (very carefully!) and set up intravenous fluids and start antibiotics, pain killers and other medication. This was just as well, as it was clear that Noster would need an operation because he had a displacement of his intestines as well as an impaction - both of which could result in his death. This would have been a tragedy because aside from the fact that rhinos are one of the famous ‘big five’ sought-after in game parks throughout Africa, every rhino in South Africa is doubly valuable now, given the ever-increasing number being brutally slaughtered for their horns.

Dr Johan Marais, the equine surgeon on call, was alerted to Noster’s serious condition and he agreed to operate immediately. Well, perhaps not immediately, as first Noster had to be persuaded to walk the thirty odd meters from the stable to the induction room. And Noster had other plans – teaching everyone involved that an adolescent rhino weighing as much as a large horse but built like a mini-tank, is not to be taken lightly! Progress was very much ‘one step forward, three steps backwards and two sideways’ in spite of many willing helpers to push and pull. Perhaps his unwillingness had something to do with the blindfold and cotton wool in his ears… Finally though, Noster was in the right place and was duly anaesthetised and lifted up by hydraulic hoist and lowered onto the operating table. The operation was fortunately without complications, and although Noster took a long time to come round from anaesthesia, 24 hours later he was awake and grumpy. His ‘mum’ Renee slept with him in the stable and was on hand to feed him milk (special rhino formula!) every few hours. Two days later he was drinking over 20 litres but was still unwilling to eat. Offerings of lucerne, hay, bran mash, etc. were refused with determination – Noster the Convalescent preferred his milk! This was of some concern to the veterinary team, who wanted to be sure that he could digest his usual food and produce normal dung before he was taken home.

Eventually, after two more days on milk, Noster obliged the team and it was clear he was feeling much better AND very bored. His red ball was no longer amusing and he showed his frustration at being confined by sulkily hiding his head under his plastic feed tub. Later that day, Noster was loaded into his crate and driven back to Thabazimbi to enjoy some badly needed sunshine, fresh air and grazing. Feedback a week later was very positive – Noster was very hale and hearty indeed! And if all continues to go according to plan then one day Noster will be ‘Mister Noster’, a male adult rhino rehabilitated back into the wild to sire healthy babies and help boost the diminishing rhino population in this country.

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