Mask Designed by Israeli Zookeeper Saves Rhino's Eyes

Neta Gueta of the Zoological Center of Tel Aviv-Ramat Gan invented a mask to stop flies from laying eggs in the eyes of Tanda the white rhino.

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Tanda, 22, a two-ton rhinoceros, wears a mask at the Zoological Center of Tel Aviv-Ramat Gan, November 4, 2014. Photos by AP
Tanda, 22, a two-ton rhinoceros, wears a mask at the Zoological Center of Tel Aviv-Ramat Gan, November 4, 2014. Photos by AP
Ruth Schuster
The Associated Press

After 14 years of unending eye infection and futile treatments, a rhino's ordeal may be ending.

Tanda has accepted a face-mask to keep flies off her eyes, designed for her by Israeli specialists, who hope it will break the cycle of reinfection and give antibiotics a chance.

Rhinoceroses don't see well to begin with, and her gradually worsening condition had rendered 22-year-old Tanda practically blind.

"Her eyes were cleaned and treated with ointments in the morning every day for 14 years," says Sagit Horowitz, spokeswoman of the Zoological Center of Tel Aviv-Ramat Gan, better known as the Ramat Gan Safari park. "She got so used to it that she would eat next to her keepers while they treated her eyes."

But nothing worked, not creams or even operations. The Safari's own doctors and an endless stream of external specialists took samples and made suggestions but Tanda's eyes just grew worse, and their condition – stemming from constantly recurring conjunctivitis caused by a parasite called Habronema – just grew more complicated. The parasite was being deposited in the corners of the rhino's eyes by flies, and she had developed over-sensitivity, Horowitz told Haaretz.

The mask to keep flies off the rhino's eyes and give the treatments a chance to work was a brainstorm by zookeeper Neta Gueta, 41, who's been at the Safari for some 20 years, says Horowitz.

Ignoring skepticism in the ranks, Gueta designed and sewed it herself, Horowitz says. It was a long-term labor, starting with a horse's mask that she deconstructed, and rebuilt with extra elastic materials to fit the rhino's head. She formed holes for the rhino's ears and horn and attached the panels with doubled Velcro, so it doesn't open up and fall off during the day.

"It was product engineering. She invented it," says Horowitz.
The mask is made from "special netting built from special technology against insects so that files can't lay their eggs inside," Gueta told AP Tuesday. "They can stand on the netting but they can't lay their eggs."

Fitting Tanda with the device posed multiple challenges, mainly because of her size. They also chose to wait to start the new therapy because Tanda had a baby in September and they didn't want to risk disrupting the nurturing process by suddenly introducing a new element into the family.

When they decided Tanda was ready, Gueta trained her over weeks to wear the mask, starting with very short periods, during which she gauged the rhino's reaction.

In the last few days Tanda has readily donned the mask from early morning to afternoon, peak fly activity times, Horowitz says. "She can see through netting over her eyes, and seems to be feeling better already. She runs up to Neta each morning to have it put back on," she says. "Vision isn't a dominant sense in rhinos, and she couldn't see anyway with her eye condition. But Tanda seems to be seeing better already."

Here are a series of images by Associated Press photojournalist Ariel Schalit of Tanda with her new mask.

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