ALBANY — Many southwest Georgians recognize Chehaw as a “hidden gem,” but what some do not realize is that Chehaw is home to two of only 28 Southern Black Rhinos in captivity within the United States: Sam Houston and Dubya, obviously named for their Texas roots.

This past weekend was a bittersweet one for the keeper staff and the public, who came to show their love on what was Dubya’s 19th birthday party but also a farewell on his last birthday with us before he leaves for his new home in Kansas some time this month.

Samantha Sassone, Chehaw’s zoo curator, said she was pleased with the work of the keepers in conditioning Dubya for his transfer to meet his new mate in Kansas.

“He was selected for breeding by a reinvigorated Southern Black Rhino sustainability program,” Sassone said. “Over the past few months, zookeepers have conditioned Dubya to voluntarily enter a specially designed crate. This will reduce the stress of being transported to his new mate. Rhinos are naturally cautious and suspicious of change, so this is especially impressive.”

The goal of the sustainability program is to establish a healthy population in captivity that can be used to thwart extinction should conservation efforts in the wild fail. Experts have identified breeding pairs that will maximize genetic diversity and improve the health of the managed population.

Dubya’s primary keeper, Sherene Hall, and secondary keeper, Tayler Royal, made a birthday cake with all of his favorite treats, which included watermelon, carrot “candles,” apple slices, bananas, grapes and sweet potatoes. Royal posted a photo of Dubya with his cake on social media and stated, “If I had a time machine, I would go back and tell my undergraduate self that it’s OK that you’re having a panic attack over your OCHEM2 final because with your degree you’ll get paid to throw a black rhino his 19th birthday party. Worth it. Happy birthday, Dubya!”

Volunteers who have worked with Dubya in the past can attest to his love of apples and sweet potatoes.

As the keeper staff spoke with the rhino lovers who gathered for his birthday party, they made sure to answer any questions the kids (and adults) had about rhinos. Everyone joined in for a hearty round of “Happy Birthday” to Dubya as his keeper shifted the cake under the rail for his enjoyment. The keepers talked about special activities designed to keep rhinos’ senses occupied, and even had two of the paintings done by Dubya himself for everyone to see.

After two years of genetic tests and planning, Dubya was selected by the Southern Black Rhino Sustainability program for breeding.

While those of us who grew to love Dubya are sad to see him go, we know that he is playing a vital role in the survival of the species. We can only wish him all the best.

Sam Houston will remain at the park, and visitors can catch him wandering around his exhibit during zoo hours. Chehaw is the place to be on weekends for hourly special programs, during which visitors can meet with the different keepers at the exhibits and possibly get the opportunity to interact in some way with the animals. The times are posted every weekend on the Chehaw Facebook page.

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