GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A fresh lettuce and watermelon “cake” and a cold hose drizzle awaited Henry the rhinoceros at his milestone birthday party.
Henry, a 4,600-pound Indian rhinoceros, on Saturday celebrated his 40th birthday at Carson Springs Wildlife in northeast Alachua County, his home for the last five years. He is the country’s oldest Indian rhinoceros in captivity, according to Rhinos of the World, and is only one of a handful of his species to reach the age of 40.
“History was made today,” said Barry Janks, the co-founder of Carson Springs and Henry’s closest human friend.
He thinks Henry even knew it was his big day.
“This morning I told him, ‘happy birthday,’ and he kind of looked up at me from sleeping,” Janks said.
In 2008, after spending time in South Africa and developing a passion for exotic wildlife preservation, Janks and his wife, Christine, transitioned their 264-acre property from a horse breeding facility to the conservation it is today.
Henry came to Carson Springs in 2016 from the Tanganyika Wildlife Park in Kansas, but that wasn’t his first time transferring facilities. Born in India in 1981, Henry called San Diego and Fort Worth home before arriving in Kansas.
In all of his previous locations, Henry served as one of the most prolific breeders of Indian rhinos in the country, producing at least 25 children and over 30 grandchildren.
“About three years ago, I was in Yulee, Florida, (at White Oak Conservation), and they had an Indian rhinoceros female and a baby that I met. I thought it was so cool that we had one and they had one,” Janks said. “But then, I looked in the studbook, and it was his daughter! I was petting his baby and his granddaughter! I mean, what are the odds of that?”
Henry is “officially in retirement” at Carson Springs now, Janks said.
Many wildlife foundations fought to have Henry live out his retirement years at their facilities, but an exceptional reputation, a good relationship with Henry’s previous home and the ideal rhino climate allowed Carson Springs to beat out the competition.
Janks quickly became fast friends with the history-making rhino shortly after his arrival at Carson Springs with the help of one secret weapon: watermelon.
While hay and grains make up the majority of his diet, Henry often gets extra special treats of sweet potatoes, carrots and, his favorite, watermelon.
“He stayed out for 4 hours one day eating watermelon from me,” Janks recalled. “I kept throwing one piece at a time. My arm was so sore!”
While Henry recognizes Janks as his main caretaker, the rest of the staff also adore him.
Piper Babka, a volunteer at Carson Springs for the past year, confirmed that watermelon is Henry’s favorite treat after spending time feeding and bathing the rhino.
“He’s a really cool guy,” Babka said.
Henry’s laid-back, good-natured persona has endured throughout all of his time at Carson Springs, even after his habitat caught fire years ago.
In 2017, Henry’s shelter was destroyed after an electrical fire broke out. Janks recalls using a big barrel to block the rhino from entering his flame-filled home, an effort that sent Janks to the hospital with minor injuries. Henry made it out unharmed.
Henry’s habitat was rebuilt thanks to an outpouring of community support, where the cause raised over $7,000 through GoFundMe.
The newer, bigger and warmer shelter is now where Henry hangs out, except for when visitors come around.
“He loves (visitors) coming up to him because he gets treats and meets people,” Janks said.
That was the scene at Henry’s morning birthday bash, where over 30 people came out to watch the iconic rhino devour his fruit “cake,” sing happy birthday and take turns feeding him a slice of sweet potato or carrot.
In the crowd were Stephanie and Johnathan Barreca, who made the drive from Ocala with their young daughters, Alyssa and Aria, after hearing about Henry’s birthday party online. The family had fun feeding the rhino and celebrating his big day.
“I don’t even think he looks 40!” Aria said.
Rest, lots of watermelon and plenty of love and support from visitors like the Barreca family and the dedicated staff at Carson Springs is what it took to get Henry to a healthy and happy 40 years.
Janks expects Henry to stay thriving in his retirement for many more years to come and sees much more watermelon in his future, too.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at [email protected].