It should have been the highlight of a rhino man's career.
A rare Sumatran rhinoceros--one of only about 100 left on Earth--was coming to Los Angeles as the result of a nine-year, $400,000 effort by Los Angeles Zoo officials to help save the animal from extinction.
But zoo rhinoceros curator Michael Dee was not there when the 2,200-pound male rhino arrived at Los Angeles International Airport the other day.
Before the four-foot-tall creature could step from its crate and stretch its legs from its long trip from Jakarta, Indonesia, it was hustled off to the San Diego Zoo for display and breeding.
After years of planning and waiting its turn to receive one of the rare rhinos, the Los Angeles Zoo had missed out. It had given up its rights to the creatures by unexpectedly dropping out of the Sumatran Rhino Trust--a coalition of four American zoos that had banded together to protect one of the world's scarcest mammals.
Leaders of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn., which had paid the zoo's share of the rhino roundup cost, quietly decided that the project was a failure and ended its funding late last year.
The pullout has outraged some conservationists, who plan to demand that Los Angeles rejoin the Rhino Trust when the Zoo Assn. conducts its annual meeting at noon today at the zoo. They claim that it has given Los Angeles a black eye among serious zoologists and has threatened what is the last hope of saving the Sumatran rhino from poachers as its Asian forest habitat vanishes.
Others are claiming rhino politics: They suggest that the zoo's withdrawal is the result of a simmering feud over leadership of the 25-year-old zoo, which is shared by the city of Los Angeles and the volunteer-based Zoo Assn. The city owns the zoo and its animals, but the nonprofit association finances much of its operation.
"I was devastated, absolutely devasted," said Dee, who helped organize the Rhino Trust in 1982. "Losing the chance to work with one of the rarest animals in the world--it was terrible knowing we were almost there."
When the trust was launched, the coalition's four members drew straws, with the Cincinnati Zoo winning the first animal, followed by the San Diego Zoo and the Bronx Zoo in New York. Los Angeles drew the fourth.
The first three rhinos caught in shallow jungle pits were females that began arriving in the United States in 1989. The male rhino shipped from Jakarta this month was the fourth.
But the project's slow, costly start worried association leaders.
Officials said the group dropped out after leaders became concerned that "budget cutbacks, the unknown economy, the war" were clouding this year's financial picture.
Zoo Assn. President Bruce Nasby said: "The program hadn't been very successful. Only four rhinos had been caught at that time. That isn't enough for a very successful breeding program."
The decision to quit the coalition "was a hard one, but considering what all needs to be done here at the zoo, it was the right decision," Nasby said.
Association trustee chairman Camron Cooper and former chairman Thomas R. Tellefsen were both out of town Wednesday and unavailable for comment.
Sheldon Jensen, a city parks administrator who is acting zoo director, said he would have counseled patience had he been consulted by association leaders.
After paying three years of dues in the program, "nobody had seen a rhino. They'd invested this money and not seen any animals," he said. "I would have said give it more time. Since you've invested over $300,000 already, wait and see if you get something out of it."
Others have attributed the withdrawal to a feud between the association and former zoo director Warren Thomas, a principal organizer of the coalition who retired from the zoo earlier this year in a swirl of controversy.
"Draw your own conclusion," said Thomas, who has blamed the rhino roundup's slow start on heavy activity by poachers and on red tape from Indonesian officials.
"What's going to happen in the future if we need to put together another crucial animal salvage operation? Other zoos are going to say, 'How can we trust you after you left us holding the bag on the Sumatran rhino?' " Thomas said.
Termination of the program has prompted protests and petitions from many of the 400 volunteers who work at the zoo.
"It hurts many of us to see this," said Fred Fishman, a retired drugstore owner who has donated about 2,000 hours to the zoo in recent years.
"I think we've been shortsighted in letting this happen. It's a backward step away from the other zoos we felt ourselves equal to. (The Zoo Assn.) should be on the forefront of the conservation effort, not dragging their heels," he said.
In the meantime, the remaining trust members are continuing the rhino rescue. They said their goal is to place breeding pairs in each of the three zoos. They said they would welcome Los Angeles' return to the coalition, which recently captured two more Sumatran rhinos.
"It's been a real drain on all the zoos," Jim Doherty, head curator at the Bronx Zoo, said Wednesday of the Los Angeles pullout. "It hurt a lot. . . . I hope it doesn't jeopardize the program.
Jeff Jouette, a spokesman for the San Diego Zoo, said Los Angeles' $400,000 contribution is valuable, "whether the rhino lives in L.A. or Atlanta or somewhere else."
"Los Angeles has done well by the Sumatran rhino. People in L.A. who've invested can look at it in San Diego. If we have a baby rhino, we'll send it up there and people can look at it."