Wilding out at Ohio’s premier nature preserve
CUMBERLAND, Ohio – “Hey, good girl,” coos Jordan Lain. “You’re such a good girl.”
It’s no household pet getting this praise on a hot August day it’s a 6,000 pound Southern White Rhino, lounging in the mud.
“I talk to the rhinos a lot,” says Lain, as she maneuvers a pickup through a pasture with 14 of the massive, horned animals. “They have horrible eyesight, so I want to make sure they know I’m here.”
While seeing the rhinos this close is a once-in-lifetime experience for many of the visitors who sit under a canopy in the back of Lain’s truck, it’s an everyday occurrence for the 28-year-old Indiana native, who has worked for five years at The Wilds, a nearly 10,000-acre nonprofit educational and conservation center just an hour’s drive from Marietta.
Though she started doing everything from dispatch to housekeeping at the facility, a six-month apprenticeship with the animal management team means Lain is now one of the guides for the Wildside Tour, which takes visitors off the pathways and into the pastures, to touch and feed many of the animals who live at The Wilds.
“It was difficult at first to learn to go off-road,” she says of starting the tours after having given bus tours at the facility previously. “The buses have to stick to an exact route and this is like a giant maze. They do give us a map to study.”
Her own path
It could have been predicted early on that her career would involve animals, says Lain, who lives near Zanesville.
“I was the kid always carrying around frogs and snakes,” she says.
Her idols? Jack Hanna and Steve Irwin.
A surprise meeting with Hanna engineered by her mom at a book signing when she was 19 set Lain on her path to The Wilds.
“Oh, my gosh,” she says, putting her hand to her heart as she remembers first meeting her hero. “I had a total fan girl moment.”
When her mom told Hanna “She wants to be you someday” he steered her toward Moorpark College in California, home to one of two exotic animal programs in the country.
Never one to back away from adventure, Lain went to California on his suggestion, not knowing a soul. She studied there before taking an internship in Florida working with cougars, bobcats and other small cats.
“We mostly did enrichment for the animals,” she said. “We would make toys for them. It taught me how to work with animals.”
Gassed up and ready to go
On this day, the first tour starts at 9 a.m. with Lain cheerfully greeting the nine passengers shortly beforehand.
“How are you guys doing today?” she asks, with a smile on her face and in her voice, despite the fact that frequent tours during the busy season have left her vocal chords a bit strained and raspy. She’s already gassed up and stocked a cooler with water for them in the back of the truck, where they’ll ride on padded seats under a canopy.
“It’s a reverse zoo,” she says. “The animals are loose and you’re in the cage.”
She warns them about bumps and rough roads.
“I’ve only lost three people in my career,” she jokes.
As she departs the parking lot, she keeps the window to the back open, in case of questions and even for the guests to throw in their empty water bottles and trash. Nothing can be left behind.
Inside, a “Jurassic Park” cap sits perched on the center of the dashboard and a mason jar of coffee fills the drink holder.
She needs “lots of coffee” for the 9 a.m. tour, she says.
“It was hard for me at first because mornings are not my forte,” she says. “If I can, I start at noon and then do the evening tours.”
The controls and seats in the truck are covered by a fine layer of dirt and dust, unavoidable while trekking offroad with the windows down. It’s not the only place dirt appears in her life at work, says Lain.
“The rhinos really love it when you give them belly rubs,” she says. “They’re very affectionate but they’re covered in mud and your hands get covered in mud. My hands get very exfoliated, through. I always say we need to open a rhino spa.”
The dress code for the job is easy, though. On this day, it’s shorts, boots, a Wilds polo and a hat promoting NatGeo’s new show “Secrets of the Zoo,” which features the Columbus Zoo and The Wilds.
The truck weaves through dirt roads and grass, through gates and sallyports that get their power through solar panels.
“They can hold power for up to two weeks so if we have a major storm, they’ll still work,” Lain says. “We also have geothermal heating in many of the buildings and collect rainwater for the toilets in the carnivore building. We try to do what we can.”
She swings the truck into an open pasture where two Indian rhinos stand, waiting and watching, knowing that a truck full of people means they’re about to get a snack of sweet potatoes.
It’s here she does her first of many acrobatic maneuvers of the day, slipping out the driver’s side window of the truck and onto the roof of the vehicle, safe from any accidental stomping from the 4,000 to 4,500 pound animals.
“They’re never aggressive but they just don’t realize how big they are,” she says. “They dent the trucks, they break the tail lightsthe trucks don’t last long.”
“I never thought I would need to know how to slide out of a window like that,” she says, laughing. “I use my rock-climbing fingers for grip.”
“I Never Thought I Would Have That Experience”
As the guests slip bites of sweet potato into the mouths of the rhinos, Lain shares facts about the species with the group.
“She has so much information,” says Susan Lester, who traveled to The Wilds from Buffalo, N.Y. with her daughter, Janet Schenk, of Milwaukee. “And, I mean, we petted a rhino. I never thought I would have that experience.”
Lain shares plenty of fun facts throughout the day.
Did you know that the horns of a rhinoceros are made of 100 percent keratin and they never stop growing?
How about that a zebra’s stripe pattern works to confuse predators, deflect flies and moderate temperature?
What’s a herd of rhinos called? A crash. A group of giraffes? A tower.
Lain also shares plenty of vital information about the species protected at The Wilds.
“Most people don’t think that giraffes are endangered,” she said. “But there’s been a 40 percent decline in the last 30 years. They call it the silent extinction.”
Three to four of the Southern White Rhinos found at The Wilds are lost daily in Africa, along with some of the people who try to protect them from poachers.
The facility has five of only 27 dhole in the U.S. The wild dogs are native to Asia but are in danger of becoming extinct due to habitat loss.
Most of the animals at The Wilds are endangered or protected.
“We have several species already considered extinct in the wild,” says Lain.
Hazards and heartstrings
Lain has learned the name and personality of each animal she interacts with. She also knows the hazards well.
The ostriches will try to take any loose item. “We had to fight one for a purse the other day,” Lain says.
The Persian Onagers will not only nip but they will try to block the buses from moving.
“The exhaust helps chase the flies off of them so they love it,” Lain says. “New guides always get stuck when they won’t move. But if you inch out, they’re smart enough to not let you hit them.”
Tall necks of the highest residents of The Wilds soon peek out over hillsides and Lain pulls up to a large giraffe nicknamed Tuffy.
“He’s my favorite,” she says. “It’s hard to pick a favorite animal but he just puts on such a show.”
As Lain hands the guests lettuce leaves, Tuffy isn’t shy about reaching his head right into the truck to snatch it with a long black tongue. Piece after piece he swallows. to the delight of those feeding him.
“You can’t pet every giraffe but you can pet Tuffy,” says Lain. “He’s very sweet and he loves the attention.”
As the tour winds on through the African Painted Dog habitat at the carnivore building, through the camels lounging in the shade and the Sichuan Takin near the water, even Lain gets some surprises. As the tour watches a male giraffe born at The Wilds just last month approach his mother for food, she warns that the new mom would probably kick him away since people were so close.
Instead, she and the group quietly watched him nurse for several minutes.
“I never would have expected that,” Lain says. “That’s amazing. You never know what you’re going to get out here.”
In the neighboring pasture, baby rhinos are also hungry, letting out a high squeaking sound like kittens mewling as they try to maneuver under their mothers to nurse.
“You guys make it hard to tell a story!” Lain laughs as the squeaking reaches a fever pitch and drowns her out.
It wasn’t this interrupted tale, but another that had the most impact on Schenk as she and her mother appreciated all the animals on the tour.
“Learning about the Pere David Deer really interested me,” she said. “A Frenchman fell in love with the deer in China and ended up saving them. It’s an incredible story.”
The story is that missionary Pere Armand David brought a small group of the deer back to Europe with him, where they lived on breeding farms.
They became extinct in the wild in the 1800s, when the combination of a flood and and famine-fueled hunting in China wiped them out. However, because the species had been brought to Europe by David, it survived. Today, there are about 45 of the deer at The Wilds, with nine new babies born this year.
It’s one of Lain’s favorite stories, too.
“One man saves this entire species from complete extinction,” she says. “It shows how one person can make a difference in this world if they put their mind to it.”
Soon, it will be noon and the tour over. After a quick lunch, Lain is back at it at 12:30 with a new group in her pickup, ready to be awed. And Lain insists she still is, too.
“I can go out three, four times a day for tours and it’s always different,” she says. “The animals just make work easythey make it amazing.”
Kate York is the news editor for Graffiti’s sister paper, The Marietta Times.