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Clara In the Eyes of a Zookeeper

The details in Oudry's painting of the rhino Clara—the armor-like skin on the back, the little bumps—are superb. When I look at this, I see an Indian rhino.
Rhinoceros (detail / Oudry
Detail of Rhinoceros, Jean-Baptiste Oudry, 1749, oil on canvas, Staatliches Museum Schwerin
But I see a captive Indian rhino. Based on this painting I can see that Clara was well fed—she's not skinny or anything like that—and three things hit me right away. The first one is the condition of her horn, which is typical of an animal that lives in captivity. The horn is not as thick at the top as it normally would be and it's growing kind of back instead of growing straight up. In the wild their horns grow straight up with very little curve at all. Clara's is also really smooth. Wild horns look almost like a cypress stump with the little knees at the base. This is because wild rhinos are not rubbing on any flat material. This one is nice and shiny, so she's obviously been rubbing on something flat. If you look at different images of rhinos, you can see the horns are not quite like Clara's. That's because different rhinos rub their horns different ways. For the most part all wild rhinos have different shaped horns and they're usually not more than about eight to nine inches tall. This one obviously is quite a bit larger.

Rhinoceros (detail / Oudry
Detail of Clara's feet
The second thing that jumps out at me is the overgrown nails, and that would be typical of an animal that does not have an opportunity to move around a lot. In the wild what happens is the foot pads are very hard and the toenail kind of curves around underneath and then, because the rhino is running on those three toes, the nails are usually being worn down.

The third thing is on Clara's side, on the very rear near her hip where the folds come together, which is almost the widest spot on the rhino, there's a white spot, and then you've got another white spot here near the shoulder, and then another white spot at the side of her head, which is indicative of a dark-skinned animal that
Rhinoceros (detail / Oudry
Detail of Clara's flank
is rubbing up against something like a crate side or a wall. When I first saw Clara, I didn't catch that until after I stood there and looked at the painting for a minute, because what fascinated me most was how Clara's eye follows you around the room. She does not appear to be frightened because when that happens you can see the white part of the eye—it would stand out a lot more and in this instance it looks like she is curious about what's going on.

Rhinos don't have very good eyesight, so they use their ears and their sense of smell, but their ears are really telling. They're like radar, constantly moving, listening—and Clara's ears are not just stuck in an upright position. Her ear is back because she's probably listening to something behind her.



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