By: Joe O’Connor/National Post
Charlie knew what he liked. Maynard, for example, was something he liked, a tiny, orange tabby-cat, who would weave in and out of Charlie’s feet by day and fall asleep on his chest at night.
Pedicures were another pleasure. Mud baths. Getting a back rub with a stiff-bristled brush. Having his ears and belly scratched. Charlie was no introvert. He was all about the personal touch. And he had personality. The people who knew him best get all choked up talking about him now, describing him as a “kind soul” — as big as a house and as gentle as a mouse.
But Charlie, gentle Charlie, wasn’t a mouse. He was a Southern White Rhinoceros at the Greater Vancouver Zoo in Aldergrove, B.C. Charlie died this week, at age 46, euthanized by his long-time veterinarian, Dr. Bruce Burton, after he had stopped eating and drinking.
Old Charlie’s teeth, as old rhino teeth will, had completely worn away. Dentures were not an option. So while his mind remained active and his belly remained happy to be scratched, Charlie’s biological clock had decided it was time for him to move on to that great big rhino enclosure in the sky.
“It is with an extremely heavy heart that I say goodbye to my very dear friend, Charlie,” Dr. Burton said in a statement. “I feel immensely privileged to have known you for the past decade and a half, and feel profoundly depressed that so few will ever experience the same intense relationship we had.
“My words seem grossly inadequate and, perhaps, a little self-centred, so permit me to modify a similar sentiment once articulated by [American ecologist] Aldo Leopold.
“For those who have had such a relationship, no explanation is necessary. For those who haven’t, no explanation is possible. Rest at peace my old friend.”
Charlie’s passing has left a rhino-sized hole at the zoo. He was the star, but more than that, he was a source of wonder. Children have been tacking handmade cards and handwritten letters to the side of his barn since his death. The barn sits empty. There are no plans to fill it anytime soon.
Peaceful and loved though he was, Charlie was still a rhino. And a rhino without a sharpened horn is like a big-game hunter without a high-powered rifle. Charlie sharpened his horn on logs. He didn’t have other rhinos at hand to prove his manhood to. So he focused his ire on the birds that occasionally happened into his enclosure. Peacocks, with their showy tail feathers, were a particularly unwelcome sight.
“I would see him charge peacocks,” says Menita Prasad, the zoo’s animal care manager. “But in his later years, not so much.”
Charlie, she says, knew his name. He was locked in his barn at night. To get him into his fluffed straw bed all zookeepers had to do was call for him. In his youth he came running. As he aged, however, he stopped running, and his journey to bed became an extended lumber; a few steps, a pause, a few steps more, another pause. At each pause his big ears would flop about, as though savouring a passing breeze, as though waiting for his name to be called, again, by the sound of a human voice.
“Charlie knew exactly what you were asking him to do at night but, in my view, he just wanted you there, with him, he just wanted your attention — of getting him that 20 steps to his barn — because he knew if he stopped in a certain spot that he would get his back rubbed or the soft part behind his ears scratched,” Ms. Prasad says.
“It is very hard to get a rhino to hurry. But then, how often are you going to get a rhino asking for your attention?”
Contrast Charlie to Sweetie, the zoo’s elderly Siberian tiger. Sweetie is one anti-social cat, a creature that inspires, well, cautious respect among the zoo’s staff while Charlie inspired starry-eyed love.
Ms. Prasad’s voice isn’t far from tears throughout our conversation about him.
Charlie’s rhino-ness barrelled through in other ways, besides charging at peacocks. Everything he did was big, and loud. When he peed it was like a fire hose. When he passed wind it was like a trombone solo, blared at maximum volume, drawn out for minutes on end.
Maynard the tabby cat passed away a few years before his rhino pal did. Ms. Prasad can picture the two of them now, wherever they are, enjoying a reunion, snuggling close at night.
“Charlie was all about love,” she says. “Everything he did was monumental.”