Rhino Owner Caught on Horn Of a Dilemma

Pretty faces and a lot of money. Also, sex and death.

These are the dilemmas facing David Laylin. He’s president of SpeedTech Instruments, a company in Great Falls that makes portable electronic devices. He also owns a rhinoceros.

The rhino doesn’t live here — Laylin doesn’t have space for her — but resides on a partner’s farm in South Africa, eating twigs and fruit in her grassy pen.

Happy? This is one contented rhinoceros, Laylin says.

He bought her 12 years ago from a Brazilian zoo and says she likes to sway her hips, “if you can imagine something weighing a ton being sexy.” He calls her Baixinha (Bah-sheen-yah), which means “Shorty” in Portuguese. She’s also nicknamed Pretty One. (That’s where one of the pretty faces comes in.)

But at 26 years old, which is middle age for rhinos, this beauty is having a midlife crisis: no mate, no kids, no career.

It turns out Pretty One is pretty rare. She’s an East African black rhinoceros, and fewer than 500 remain in the world. Her last attempt to make little rhinos ended in disaster when the fellow died of old age.

“If she hasn’t been around other animals that were breeding, she doesn’t understand what’s going on,” says Morna Holden, formerly the primary rhino keeper at the National Zoo. “A lot of animals that are born in captivity are missing out on learning how to be wild.”

Laylin says he got interested in wildlife conservation while working as a hunting guide in Iran in the ’60s and ’70s. He bought the rhino for $70,000, he says, planning to breed her and then sell the offspring to other breeding programs. But his relations with conservation groups in South Africa soured. He says he’d spent $200,000 on breeding efforts and had nothing to show for it.

The conservation groups in South Africa “didn’t want private individuals involved in their province,” he says. “They thought we were trying to profit.”

So he asked his partner, John Brooker, who was taking care of Baixinha on his Glen Afric farm near Johannesburg, to find the animal a new owner. Brooker is in charge of the Breeding Endangered Species Trust and had tried to breed Baixinha. The ad went out:

Plus-size beauty needs home — or something to that effect.

That’s where the hunter came in. A Norwegian offered to pay $90,000, Laylin says, for a canned hunt of Baixinha. Canned hunting is done on fenced property so the animal cannot escape.

The news leaked and, since then, Laylin had a stampede of conservation groups calling him.

One group asked people to save Baixinha from the “rich businessman’s guns.”

Actress Charlize Theron, of “The Cider House Rules” and “Men of Honor,” wrote a letter in cooperation with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, promising to meet Laylin in South Africa to “celebrate” Baixinha’s freedom if he released his rhino.

Theron, a native of South Africa, released another statement saying, “It breaks my heart that people like David Laylin want only to kill what so many South Africans cherish.”

But Laylin says the actress and the activists are wrong. He hasn’t accepted the hunter’s offer.

“You don’t buy an animal for 12 years and try to put her into a breeding program to try to have her shot,” he says. He didn’t want to sell Baixinha, he says, but needed to recoup some of his losses. He wants at least $60,000 for the animal.

“It’s amazing he’s trying to use this kind of blackmail,” says PETA spokeswoman Lisa Lange.

But Laylin is getting tired of arguing. He said yesterday that he plans to establish trust accounts for contributions for the purchase and care of Baixinha.

“If it happens there’s lot of attention and Baixinha goes to the proper breeding program, I would be extremely ecstatic,” Laylin says.

Care for the Wild International and the Born Free Foundation have offered to send Baixinha to a sanctuary in Tanzania, the normal habitat for her breed. But after a lifetime of being cared for by humans, Baixinha wouldn’t survive in such an environment, Laylin says.

“You turn her loose, she’d be dead within a month,” he says. “She doesn’t know what it’s like to be outside. She should be [in a breeding program] celebrating and making little rhinos.”

Baixinha’s attempts at breeding failed, so the Great Falls owner of the rare black rhino wants to sell her.David Laylin has been asked to donate Baixinha to an animal sanctuary, but he says she wouldn’t survive there.