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SALT LAKE CITY — "Can it see?" zoo visitors ask repeatedly as they peer into the rhino's habitat Friday morning.
They've never seen a rhino with a mask covering its face before.
That's because Hogle Zoo is pioneering a first-of-its-kind allergy mask for rhinos. Zookeepers said the mask was several years in the making, and Princess, a 39-year-old female white rhino, modeled in public Friday.
"Princess is an animal who has historically suffered with seasonal allergies (aggravated by flies), and up until five years ago, we were able to control them through medications," said Melissa Farr, the lead keeper of the zoo's Africa section.
But at that time, everything zookeepers tried to keep flies away and Princess's allergies under control didn't work, including medicines, fly spray, ointments and even planting fly repellant bushes in the habitat, Farr said. The rhino's eyes would get painful discharge and begin oozing.
"I know that there are fly masks that are made for horses, and I thought, 'Why can't we custom build Princess her very own fly mask?'" Farr said. "Now, I didn't really know how to go about doing this. I thought maybe I could just buy a couple (horse) fly masks and Frankenstein them together, but we wanted something that looked professional."
So, Farr reached out to AA Callister, a Utah shop catering to horse riders.
"I had never had a request like this — we get some different ones, some odd ones in our industry, but nothing like this," said Bridgette Layne with AA Callister. "They definitely needed something to help Princess."
AA Callister reached out to several of its manufacturers and landed a contract with Ireland Horseware. From there, the two companies and the zoo orchestrated a complicated process of tests, measurements and lots of emails.
"They finally sent us our first prototype mask and we got that and we couldn't be more thrilled," Farr said. "Then came the training. We had to train Princess to accept the mask and get used to wearing it, get used to the feeling of it on her skin, and make some adjustments."
Farr said up until this point, she didn't know of anyone in the rhino community who has tried a fly mask.
"So we would like to think we're pioneers in some respect as far as that goes," she said.
Farr gave a presentation on the mask at the International Rhino People workshop last year, where she networked with several other rhino keepers and colleagues about allergies.
Farr said she sent a picture of the mask to several rhino keepers, and "everyone was like, 'Oh, that's the coolest mask we've ever seen.' Everyone's really excited for us. And they definitely now have a tool that they can use for their own rhinos."
To answer visitors' questions of whether the rhino could see through the mask that appeared to me made of solid fabric, zoo workers handed out sunglasses with similar fabric glued to the lenses to see what Princess was seeing. With many small holes dotting the fabric, people could clearly see through the glasses.
Sixteen-year-old Lincoln Jensen and his 12-year-old brother, Jack, were among the small crowd Friday morning to see Princess' new mask for the first time.
"I'm glad they're helping the animals," Lincoln Jensen said. "And I'm glad these animals are protected here."
Jack Jensen said he thought the mask looked helpful. Indeed, since Princess has been using the mask, Farr said she and the other zookeepers haven't noticed the rhino getting any signs of allergies.
"We're above and beyond pleased with Ireland Horseware and the mask they made for her," Layne said. "I think it's exceptional."
After the company delivered the mask to the zoo, keepers couldn't put it on Princess right away; they had to carry out a slow process of conditioning her to get used to it. It took about a year to get her fully used to wearing it, Farr said.
"The first thing we did is put it in her line of sight so that she can see it and sort of smell, we would bring it around her so she could check it out and investigate it, all in the presence of some of her favorite treats, of course," Farr said.
Then, they started touching her skin with the fabric, practicing with the sound of velcro, draping it on parts of her face, getting one ear at a time in, and finally strapping it on in slowly increasing increments at a time.
Now, it takes less than a minute to strap it on, and Princess doesn't seem to mind it at all.