Local conservationist goes to Africa, saves baby rhinos

In need of rhino caretaking advice? Just ask Kari Wesighan.

The College Park resident recently spent three months in South Africa, volunteering at a rescue where she took care of orphaned rhinoceros calves.

“They are orphaned because of poaching, usually, or other environmental stressors,” Wesighan said. “We would become its mother 24/7. We would step in and do basically anything that the mother would have done for it.”

The volunteer trip was part of Wesighan’s lifelong journey of conservation. She grew up watching Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin and rescuing animals that had wandered into human habitats. “It’s just been in my nature to save animals,” she said. “I was saving them at a very young age and I just decided to make it into my career.”

Wesighan graduated from the University of Central Florida with a degree in biology and became a zookeeper at Disney but eventually changed to a part-time employee instead. She connected with the manager of the rhino orphanage over social media and, before she knew it, was on a plane to South Africa.

A typical day caring for rhinos might include anything from bottle-feeding to administering medicine to taking them on walks. It may sound simple, but Wesighan said it was one of the most rewarding things she has ever done. The baby rhinos have personalities; they remember and recognize the people who take care of them and even cuddle up to them for comfort. “It’s incredibly hard to explain how rewarding it was to be that support system for a rhino calf that just had their mother killed,” she said.

Now, Wesighan has taken what she learned in Africa and uses it to educate people here in Florida. She gives lectures on conservation and teaches Disney visitors — who she said are often skeptical of zoos — about the important role that zoos can play in bringing back populations of endangered species. “One of the main things I wanted to do is come back, and educate the guests who come to Disney, and be able to tell them this is why we do what we do,” she said.

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