THE LAST GIANT By: J.A. George AKA; The GYPSY
His name was Matthew Dillon Ceratotherium Simum. We just called him Matt and he was just 15 years old when he died. Matt was also the last of his kind. Matt was the last wild caught Southern White Rhino and he was my friend.
Matt stood 6’ at the shoulder and weighed in at around 5,000 pounds. Captured in southern Africa when he was just a year-old. Matt was shipped to the United States to the San Diego Zoo in California as part of a conservation of species program. After his capture international restrictions were implemented that kept any more Southern White Rhinos to be exported from Africa.
Matt eventually was loaned out to El Paso Zoological Park in El Paso, Texas. The hope was that Matt, whose bloodline was unique and not found in any other Southern White Rhinoceros in North America, would breed with the two female Southern White Rhinos also on loan from San Diego. The Two Females were Miss Kitty, a 17-year-old female who stood 5’ 6” at her shoulder and weighed in at around 3,500 pounds and Daisy May. Daisy was a young and vibrant 10 years old and weighed in at a trim 3,000 pounds and was a petite 5’ at her shoulder. Of the 3 loaned Rhinos Daisy was the most social. But Matt was King.
I received my introduction to my 3 charges when I became lead Keeper of the Hoof stock area in June of 1983. I was used to dealing with small and large species alike. Having come from Abilene Zoological Gardens in Abilene, Texas I had helped birth a Giraffe that was born breach. I had assisted the Herpetologist in getting the 10’ Alligator Humpy back into his enclosure numerous times. Humpy had a Gypsy Soul and liked to wander. My life had been saved by an Asian Elephant 9a story for another day), and I had assisted walking 3-year-old African Elephants around the Zoo Grounds. There are numerous more examples I could give of my work with large species, but you get the idea.
Yet when I was first introduced to these 3 giants, Matt, Miss Kitty and Daisy, I do not think that I was prepared for the welcome I received. The Zoo’s Vet Tech, Claudia Newman, did the introductions. As we walked up the long drive to the central Hoof Stock barn, I could see the 3 Rhinos watching us from their enclosure to our left. This enclosure was large. It swooped down from the central barn towards a lower gutter that sat at the base of a 10’ concrete retaining wall. At the top of this wall and protected from the edge by a short fence and planter that surrounded the hoof stock exhibits the public could look down into the Rhinos curved 100’ x 50’ x 30’ exhibit.
The exhibits substrate was caliche dirt, commonly called desert concrete. This dirt was ideal for Rhino’s with one exception. Miss Kitty was allergic to the dust from this dirt.
As we entered the hoof stock barn the 3 Rhinos rushed up to the stockade fence. This fence was made from concrete anchored wooden utility poles. The poles showed wear from the Rhinos need, like overgrown cats, to rub against them. In this stockade barrier there was a cutaway that was 4’ high and just wide enough for two Rhino heads and that is what greeted us as we walked up to the opening, two Rhino heads belonging to Miss Kitty and Daisy.
Looking at Rhinos from a distance is not like being a foot away from them. It is a little disconcerting at first being nose to nose with a head that is almost as large as your entire body. Claudia made the introductions; This is Miss Kitty, and this is Daisy. Both animals snorted at the sound of their names. That, she indicated the large male Rhino standing back away from the females is Matt. I laughed, “Matt Dillon, Miss Kitty and Daisy?” Claudia nodded, “Yep, the saloon girl.” We laughed and it seemed as if the Rhino’s laughed with us.
Claudia showed me how to apply the Hydrocortisone cream around Miss Kitty’s eyes to help with her allergies. Miss Kitty was used to this routine and stood still as the cream was applied. Daisy nudged her big square upper lip against my forearm. “She wants you to scratch her nose.” I scratched her nose and she purred. I gave Claudia a look. “They are as intelligent as dogs but have many mannerisms like a cat.” She pointed at their wallow, a pit containing their urine and feces in the middle of the exhibit. “They always do their business in the same spot. They rub on things to scratch and leave a scent. They purr and…” Claudia scratched Miss Kitty behind the ear. “They love to be scratched behind the ear.” Miss Kitty half closed her eyes and purred.
Suddenly Matt moved forward and shoved the two females out of the way. His mass made Miss Kitty and Daisy look small. He laid his head on the fence and snorted stamping a rear foot once. “He let’s the females get attention first but when it comes to who eats first the Marshall of Dodge City is first up to the table.’ I laughed and said, “Being from Kansas and being a fan of Gunsmoke I can totally understand the Marshall exercising his rights.” Matt seemed to like the statement as he turned his head towards me and snorted.
Claudia handed me a bucket of sweet horse and mule feed and I held it for Matt as he happily chowed down. When he had enough, I repeated the scenario with Miss Kitty and then Daisy. The hierarchy was obvious, and it would be a scenario that was repeated twice a day in the upcoming months. We took a bale of alfalfa hay from the large stack in the center of the barn, broke it apart and threw it into the exhibit. Claudia said, “Time for the shit cart.”
We rolled the large metal cart into the exhibit and down to the wallow. Using pitch forks we began cleaning out the feces and throwing it into the cart. (I bet you thought a Zookeepers life was all glamour and playing with animals.) At one-point Matt approached us snorting and stomping. Claudia picked up a dirt clod and chucked it at Matt hitting his thick hide on the shoulder. The dirt clod exploded in a rain of dust and Matt ran back up to where Miss Kitty and Daisy were enjoying their breakfast. “Sometimes he likes to show his dominance, but dirt clods shake him up and put him back in his place. He is really a gentle giant” Claudia explained. “Let’s hope I never run out of dirt clods.” I said.
We dumped the Shit Cart in the Zoo’s large dumpster, hosed it out, put up our tools and moved on to care for the next animals; White Tail Deer, North American Bison, Dromedary Camel, Nilgai Antelope and Ostrich. This was my morning routine everyday but twice a day I got to spend quality time with the Rhino’s, and we became close.
June turned to July. July turned to August and August turned to September. Matt and I became close. He started liking the type of attention Miss Kitty and Daisy craved. I no longer had to use dirt clods to spook him; I had learned his language. When he challenged me, I challenged back. I stomped my foot and snorted. I commanded him, “Matt, Get Back!” He would turn and retreat. I had exercised my dominance. Matt was King when I wasn’t around, but I was King when present. But it was more than that. I had developed a deep respect for Matt and the females. I believe with all my heart that respect was returned in kind. In short, we liked each other.
Now do not misunderstand what I am saying. Rhinos are wild animals, and it should never be assumed that they are domesticated in any way. There is an old Zookeeper saying, “Never Turn Your Spine On A Bovine.” In other words, never let your guard down and I never did. One day Matt became agitated because of some unruly children in the public viewing area. His agitation was beyond my control to spook him back. I had to run up the 10’ retaining wall, a trick I had learned as a way to save my life long before parkour was a part of the English language. This skill would again come in handy at a critical time in the relationship between me and Matt.
It was shortly after Labor Day of 1983 that Robert Fulton, the Zoo’s Director, called me to his office. I had been at the Zoo for 3 months and was enjoying every day. I prayed that I was not in trouble. When I entered his office David Benavidez, the Zoo’s Foreman and Claudia were already seated. Mr. Fulton invited me to have a seat and I inquired as to what was happening.
“San Diego wants the Rhinos back.” I was stunned. “What? Why?” Mr. Fulton sighed. “As you know Matts bloodline is unique. We have been unsuccessful in our breeding program. San Diego is upping their program and they want them back. We must send them; they belong to San Diego.” I was stunned. The thought that I would ever lose my friends had never crossed my mind. Rhinos have a lifespan of up to 50 years in captivity and at the time I thought we would all grow old together.
Mr. Fulton informed me that 3 Rhino sized crates were being delivered the next day from Grand Prairie Animal Park. They would be lowered into the exhibit by crane and it would be my job between then and October 10th to get them accustomed to the crates.
So, the daily routine changed. They no longer got their sweet horse and mule feed at the stockade cutaway. Instead, I would pour the feed on the floor right inside the crate. Miss Kitty and Daisy would follow me and had no problem eating their feed in a new way. Matt was more wary. He would snort and stomp and wanted no part of these new arrangements. He missed eating from the bucket in my hand. But even with the trust that had developed between us I could not risk getting up close and personal with him without a barrier. So, I came up with a plan.
The crates had a double layer of bars at the back. There was enough room between these bars for a man to stand. Also, a man could get in between the bars but a Rhino could not. The reason for the spaced bars was to give a animal handler a means of escape or to give a vet safe access to the animal once they were crated. I started standing at the backside of the crate in between the bars and feeding Matt from that side. After a tedious week of on again, off again trust in these new arrangements Matt trusted me and easily came to the bars for his feed.
Since Matt was now use to the crate, I began introducing the feed into the crate. I started at the process at the open end of the crate and day by day moved the feed in deeper. I did this for all 3 animals, and it worked. Soon they were stepping into the crates to get their horse and mule feed.
October 10th came sooner than I wanted it to. The day broke bright and sunny. Fall in the high desert brings a mix of warm and cool breezes intermixed with each other and this morning was no different. The Zoo was closed until all 3 animals could be captured and loaded. Only 3 people were allowed in that end of the Zoo that morning; me, the transport driver and the Veterinarian sent from Grand Prairie Animal Park. The vet’s job would be to administer a tranquilizer if needed and to be with the Rhinos on the long trip to San Diego.
Zoo Staff mingled, anxious outside the zoo’s commissary. They could see down the driveway where the flat bed truck and crane that would load the crates sat. The transport driver had positioned himself on top of one of the crates. He was laying flat, out of sight of the Rhino’s, ready to drop the bar in place after a Rhino entered the crate. The Vet sat on the wall with a dart gun ready to tranquilize if needed. I stood in the driveway, a bucket of Horse and Mule in hand, ready to betray my friends. A mix of feelings filled me, nervousness, anxiety and fear. But mostly my heart was filled with sadness. I steeled myself and entered the exhibit.
Miss Kitty was first. I had treated her eye earlier and I had felt bad that I had not been able to feed her or the other two. They had been fasted since the night before so that they would be hungry and hopefully move into the crates quickly to be fed. I walked backward into the crate with Miss Kitty following me in her big square mouth trying to get the bucket of feed. I stepped between the bars, dumped the feed and as Miss Kitty lowered her head and started to eat the transport driver dropped the bar in place, I exited out the back and tossed a bale of alfalfa into the crate as the transport driver secured the crate.
Daisy and Matt watched with curiosity. Who were these strange people in their home? Why was Miss Kitty sealed in that box? Daisy was a little more wary when it came to her turn, but she entered the crate and was secured. I cannot tell you the feeling of being in a confined space with an animal that could stomp you like a bug or crush your internal organs with the hairy horn on their snout. The saving grace is that within the crate they cannot charge and if spooked they are more likely to back out than lunge forward. So it was with Matt.
As Matt entered the crate, he became anxious. He looked at me, he snorted his anger at being betrayed and backed out as the transport driver tried to drop the bar. Matt ran out into the exhibit and stood snorting and stomping. As I exited the crate Matt charged and I ran, right up the 10’ foot wall. I yelled at the transport driver to stay put and he gave me a thumbs up.
Mr. Fulton came down to see what had happened. We conferred with the Vet and decided we would wait a half hour and try again. We took a break to give Matt a chance to calm down. However, the second attempt to lure him into the crate was just as unsuccessful as the first.
The decision was made to tranquilize him. The idea was to give Matt just enough sedative to make him groggy then the Vet and I would use cattle prods to guide him into the crate. I exited the exhibit as the vet took aim and fired. Twenty minutes later Matt was still not showing any effects from the tranquilizer. He was stomping around the exhibit and letting me know that he was incredibly angry with me and the current situation. The decision was made to administer a second dose. The sound of the air rifle echoed off the steel beams of the barn as the dart entered Matts gray right shoulder just above the first dart.
The effect was almost immediate, and Matt started staggering around the exhibit. The Veterinarian and I entered the exhibit with our cattle prods. The Vet on one side and me on the other we goaded Matt into the crate. All the while I talked to Matt telling him how sorry I was that it had gone this way. The bar was dropped into place and Matt was crated. The Vet entered the backside of the crate where the double bars were located and administered an antidote. I threw a bale of alfalfa into the crate then I kneeled in front of the collapsed Matt.
I was crying and I asked Matt to forgive me for being his Judas. Now before you say that I was being too hard on myself please consider this; I had just broken the trust and respect I had built up with these animals. They had no way of knowing that we were not harming them. They did not know that they were being transported to the home they had once been at with others of their kind. They had no idea that they were going to live their lives under the best care any animal could ask for. They did not even care that they were possibly one of the pieces of the puzzle for the survival of their species. All they knew was that their trusted human had betrayed them. I had turned Judas for the 64 coins I earned daily for my pay.
I said goodbye to Matt, Daisy and Miss Kitty in turn. And as I cried my friends were craned onto the flat bed, secured and made ready for the trip to San Diego. Mr. Fulton stood next to me as we watched this final ceremony in the time that these magnificent creatures had spent at the El Paso Zoo. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Why don’t you take the rest of the day off and go home.” I did not argue. I walked up to the commissary, clocked out and mounted my motorcycle but I did not go home.
I followed the transport and its 3 crates of precious cargo to the New Mexico border 20 miles away. At the sign that stated, “Welcome To New Mexico Land of Enchantment” I pulled over and watch my 3 friends disappear towards the horizon on Interstate 10 that would carry them to California. When I could see them no longer, I said, “our time together was enchanting, and I will miss you. I then turned my motorcycle towards the upper Rio Grande Valley and spent the rest of the day riding the sadness away.
I arrived at work early on October 13, 1983 to a gray day. A rare desert storm was threatening to hit, and I wanted to get my outside duties done quickly before it rained. It had been 3 days since I had said goodbye to Matt, Miss Kitty and Daisy. I thought about them often and knew I had to finish the clean up of their former exhibit and get it ready for whoever the next occupant would be. I had been putting it off because it pained me to look at it. I could see the indentations of the crates and though the wallow was cleaned out and dry it would need to be filled with dirt. Looking at these things brought an overwhelming sadness to me, but I knew it must be done.
I had finished my morning duties and had just hauled the first wheelbarrow full of dirt down to the wallow when Mr. Fulton appeared at the gate. The usually jovial Director was sober and serious as he asked me to step out and talk with him.
“I just received a call from San Diego. Miss Kitty and Daisy arrived safely and are being acclimated.” I suddenly felt my chest tighten. “What about Matt?” Mr. Fulton lowered his head looking at the asphalt floor of the barn. “Matt died in route, right outside San Diego.” I sat down hard on a hay bale and started to cry. “No! What? How?” Mr. Fulton ignoring the crisp freshness of his three-piece suit sat down beside me. “The Vet only administered enough antidote for one tranquilizer. Matt never recovered from the second dose.” I jumped up and looked at Mr. Fulton, “So they killed him?” The Zoo Director stood up brushing off his slacks. “It was an accident.” I was furious. “An accident? How do you accidently forget to give enough antidote? Bull Shit!”
Mr. Fulton acknowledged that it would seem to be neglect. He told me that San Diego was not happy and launching an investigation. “They are not happy?” I shot back. “I am not happy but what good does that do poor Matt?” I started crying again. There was silence in the barn. After a few moments Mr. Fulton cleared his throat and said, “For whatever this is worth San Diego sent a team of Vets out to the transport which was stopped at a rest area alongside the interstate. They harvested Matts testicles while they were still viable. Matt may be gone but his legacy will live on through his offspring.” I looked up at Mr. Fulton and said, “But they are not Matt.”
Mr. Fulton said that he understood how I was feeling and suggested I take the rest of the day off. I said, “I have work to do.” I grabbed the wheelbarrow and went for another load of dirt. Mr. Fulton left leaving me to my work, thoughts and sorrow. As the rain started to fall and I wiped away all traces of my friend it was hard to tell whether my face was wet from the storm or the memory of my lost friend.
You have just read the story of one of the hardest moments of my life. It has been over 37 years since those events took place. Now here we are in 2020. A horrendous year where so many have died so needlessly just like Matt died needlessly. Human or Animal a needless death is still a needless death. It causes us to reflect on mortality, that of ourselves and others.
As 2020 was ending and the last week approached, I was trying to decide on a final painting for this year; a painting that would sum up what this year has meant for me and others. I was coming up short for a subject matter and so likewise was my time coming up short to do a painting before 2021 arrived. With only 4 days to go I saw a photograph by National Geographic photographer and filmmaker Ami Vitale. She has traveled the world over to show us not only violence and conflict but also the beauty and humanity of the natural world.
The photograph that I saw that Vitale took on March 19, of 2018 was of Sudan the last male Northern White Rhino left on earth. The photo was taken at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Northern Kenya, the emotional photograph shows Joseph Wachira, Sudan’s friend and keeper comforting The Last Giant moments before he passed away. It is not hard to imagine the impact this photograph had on me. Grabbing my canvas, paint and brushes I set to work.
Some of you have seen the photographs of my dog Kato Kite watching me work on this painting that is not only a statement on 2020 but also a tribute to Sudan and my friend Matt. It seemed fitting that I have a current animal friend with me as I remembered another animal friend from long ago.
I am an interpretive artist. I do not do photo realism. Though I can see the realistic aspects in a photograph that may serve as my inspiration I paint from the heart. I may overemphasize certain aspects of reality to bring forth the emotion I am feeling or trying to convey. Though my paintings have a base in reality, emotion is the base of my paintings. I could bore you by relating the creation process, but I won’t. What I will tell you is this; as the clock counted down to midnight on New Years Eve and the 1963 Classic Comedy Movie “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” played on the television I signed the finished painting.
I generally will allow the viewer of my work to interpret the painting in their own way. But in this case, I want to explain its motivation. This past year, 2020 caused a lot of pain and sorrow for so many. Such as the pain and sorrow me and Joseph Wachira experienced at the passing of our friends. Both animals were the last of their kind; one the last wild caught the other the last on earth. Both passing’s were traumatic and an immeasurable loss. Yet just as Matts testicles were harvested so that new generations of Southern White Rhinoceros may once again populate the earth so too was Sudan’s testicles harvested so that the great Northern White Rhinoceros may, hopefully, once more roam the earth.
The story of these two Last Giants so far apart yet so intricately linked together can serve as a lesson for mankind. From the travesty and traumatic crisis, the year 2020 has been we can harvest from it hope for a new beginning for future generations. All we must do is harvest the lessons we have learned and push forward into the future. From our pain joy can take root and grow.
I envy Joseph Wachira. He was able to be there in Sudan’s last moments and say goodbye. I could not be there in Matt’s last moments to say goodbye. I have however given Matt a proper send off by sharing with you his story. May this tribute to The Last Giant serve as my goodbye to 2020 and the hope for a brighter better future for us all.