Holding his 3-year-old son, Colton Matthews leaned toward Hogle Zoo zookeeper Jason Sorstokke to go through a round of questioning that has recently become familiar to zoo staff: What is on the rhino’s face?
The gray mask, outlined with pink trim, stood out among the earthy neutrals of the exhibit, where its two senior inhabitants — a brother and sister pair of endangered white rhinos, both dusty gray — could blend into the background if they stood still long enough.
Sorstokke delivered the spiel: Princess has bad eye allergies, either related to dust or flies or both, and the mask keeps them away. She can see through the mesh mask, just like you can see through a screen door.
“Cool,” Matthews said. “I’m glad you got it taken care of for her.”
While Princess, 39, has been wearing the mask in public for a month and is comfortable in it now, it took more than a year to prepare for this moment, lead zookeeper Melissa Farr said.
Farr said zookeepers have been battling Princess’s seasonal eye allergies for years, but recently they noticed ointments and other medications weren’t working as well as they used to, leaving the rhino’s eyes red, swollen and enticing to flies.
Farr, who grew up working with horses, eventually came up with a solution: a fly mask, like those made for horses, but much larger and able to accommodate a horn.
Such a mask had never been made before, so Farr’s first inclination, she said, was to buy a few masks for horses and sew them together, Frankenstein-style. Then she decided Princess needed something a little more professional. She turned to the folks at AA Callister, a Utah-based horse tack and feed store.
“I have never had a request like this. We get some different ones, some odd ones in our industry,” said Bridgette Layne with AA Callister, “but nothing like this.”
Still, Layne said, the company did what it could, eventually hooking up with Horseware Ireland, which agreed to fashion the mask.
Its staff just needed the measurements — although measuring Princess’s head ended up being a bit easier said than done.
Farr said it took a few weeks to condition Princess to the idea of wrapping the measuring tape around her head and horn. But soon they got measurements for 11 specific points on Princess’s head, spanning from the distance between her horns (1¼ inches) to the diameter of her head above her eyes (57⅛ inches).
The mask — complete with pink trim and a rhino emblem — arrived at Hogle Zoo last August. Then zookeepers started the longer process of desensitizing her to it.
Keepers first just carried the mask around Princess, getting it in her line of sight so she could smell it and investigate it.
“All in the presence of some of her favorite treats, of course, so if it was too scary, she at least got a good banana as a reward,” Farr said.
Eventually, zookeepers would touch her with the mask, so she could get used to the fabric. Then they’d drape it over her face and ears, before slowly slipping it over her ears. Soon enough, she was wearing it, though for just minutes at a time at first. Now, she wears it most of the day.
Princess’s brother, George, 42, was slowly acquainted with the mask, too.
If he was ever bothered by it, he didn’t show it Friday.
“He’s a good boy,” Farr said, patting George as the rhino lazily munched on a pile of hay, green slobber sometimes dripping from his horizontal, bulbous slit of a mouth.
On a normal day, Farr said, it takes keepers less than a minute to put on Princess’ mask. Friday morning, though, in front of a gaggle of news cameras, the resolute gray lady was distracted and skittish. She eventually accepted the mask in the comfort of the more-private barn.
When Princess — now sporting her mask — and George walked out of their smaller enclosure into the larger rhino exhibit, questions erupted from the waiting crowd:
“Why does it have that thing on it?”
The zoo has two pairs of sunglasses on hand that have, instead of lenses, mesh similar to the type covering Princess’ eyes. They hand out the glasses to spectators so they can get an idea of how well Princess can see with the mask on.
Matthews, wrangling his 3-year-old’s inquiries about petting the rhinos, tried on a pair.
“You can see,” he said. “It looks like a screen door, like looking through a screen door.“
He said he also liked that the mask was pink. Fitting, he said, for (a) Princess.