July Rhino Champions: The Bowlers

Throughout the years we have talked about the great work that the American Association of Zookeepers (AAZK) has done through their Bowling For Rhinos fundraisers. For over 25 years they have been raising money for rhino conservation and last year they passed the $7 million mark! Organizing these events is no easy task- and that’s why IRF wants to recognize everyone who has participated in a Bowling For Rhinos (BFR) event as our July Rhino Champions.

While the entirely volunteer-run chapters dedicate a massive amount of time and resources to these events, 100% of the proceeds go directly to conservation. BFR funds protect rhinos and their habitats through IRF’s Javan rhino program in Ujung Kulon National Park in Indonesia, our Sumatran rhino projects in Bukit Barisan Selatan and Way Kambas National Parks in Sumatra, and Lewa Conservancy’s Black rhino projects in Kenya. Javan, Sumatran, and Black rhinos are all critically endangered species and need all the help they can get!

On the National AAZK level, the BFR Committee provides support to the individual chapters through communications strategies, event kits, and coordinating with conservation partners. Events are spread throughout the year with each BFR being unique to the local chapter that’s running it, but they all have the same mission: to have fun while saving rhinos!

Bowling for rhinos, San Diego, AAZK
Committee members spend all year planning and coordinating the various components of an event. Nothing feels better than coming together to save rhinos! San Diego AAZK Board members are ready to bowl! Photo credit: Ion Moe

We spoke with several BFR coordinators across the country to find out what goes into putting on a BFR event and what motivates them to keep doing it year after year.

(JW) Jill Werner– Primate/Carnivore Keeper at Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens; Treasurer of LA AAZK chapter, National conference 2020 Co-chair; has worked with everything from spiders to elephants, as last year’s BFR chair won an AAZK fundraising award and traveled to Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.

(SR) Sean Ramsdell– Rhino Senior Animal Care Specialist at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay; Treasurer/Fundraising Chair and BFR Coordinator of Tampa Bay AAZK; formerly the Secretary for the Greater Houston AAZK, now also helps with social media and website management for Tampa Bay, and ran the 2014 London Marathon for rhino conservation.

(TP) Toni Piccolotti – African Veld and Land of the Tiger Mammal Keeper at Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens; Former Treasurer of Jacksonville AAZK; has worked with wildlife since the 70s, traveled with IRF this past spring to Indonesia as recognition for her fundraising efforts.

(AK) Ann Knutson– Avian Propagation Center Senior Keeper at San Diego Zoo; President of San Diego AAZK; has served various roles in several AAZK chapters, broken BFR fundraising records, and has created her own fundraisers for various conservation programs.

What makes your chapter’s BFR unique? Any special themes you’ve done?

JW: Our chapter BFR has had a specific theme each of our 10 years. Our chapter has the distinction of being the top money fundraisers for all 9 years we have held events. We are also now the top fundraisers of all time since the start of BFR in 1987. Our event is unique in that we have multiple bowling shifts selling out an entire bowling alley from 5PM until 1AM. I think many of the people who attend BFR in Los Angeles are in an interesting position- we live in a place of a lot of excess and larger than life people and things. LA has very vocal and passionate people who just love animals and want to make a difference. I think because of this we at LAAAZK are able to make our BFR also larger than life and use our location to get people involved and interested in doing their part to make a difference.

SR: We generally have a t-shirt design contest every year for local artists and keepers to put their talents to the test – the winner has their design featured on our annual shirt.  We also have a Keepers versus Managers Challenge, where Busch Gardens and ZooTampa enter teams of keepers and teams of managers and they bowl against each other to see which team can achieve the best score and win the rhino trophy.  

TP: Our chapter is one of the few that has participated in BFR every year since its inception in 1987. In 2011, we had our best year ever, and with that success, decided to set higher goals and see how far we could take it. We’ve made our goal every year since, with 2017 being the best. Many people come back year after year, and they like bowling! However, bowling is not required. For $10.00 you can attend, bid in the silent auction, purchase beer and other items, and have fun socializing.

AK: Our BFR event is special in that we have members from three different organizations working together to have a great event. We had a costume contest which is now an integral part of our event, and the costumes are so fun and creative.

Bowling For Rhinos, rhino conservation, Jacksonville Zoo, rhino shirt
Jacksonville AAZK showing off their shirts. Many chapters hold a t-shirt design contest with the winning design featured on that year’s shirt! Every chapter has a unique t-shirt for sale at each year’s event- how many do you have?! Photo credit: Janel Jankowski

How was your most recent BFR event?

JW: Our 2018 BFR was May 5th. We had a banner year. We have not formally announced the number raised yet but it will break our record again. This year’s theme was “Remembering Randa” She was our Greater One-horned Rhinoceros and a cancer survivor. She had squamous cell carcinoma that was successfully treated with multiple horn removal surgeries and radiation. She had been cancer-free for 5 years when she passed away at the end of 2017 at 48-yrs-old. To the best of our knowledge she was the oldest Greater one-horned rhino under human care.

SR: Our most recent BFR was on May 25, 2018 and set a lot of new records for our chapter. The aforementioned Keepers versus Managers Challenge resulted in the Keepers victorious for the third year in a row.  We sold out of 2 of our 3 shirt colors. Our raffle sold the most tickets we’ve ever sold for the raffle.  We had the most bowlers ever – 170.

TP: Our event was held on June 15th and 16th this year, and we had 229 bowlers and 70 non-bowlers attend. This was our largest attendance, and everyone seemed to have a good time.

AK: Our most recent event was another great event, and we are continuing to raise funds and awareness for rhinos through smaller events like trivia, a paint night, etc.

Bowling for rhinos, rhino conservation, AAZK, Los Angeles Zoo,
LA AAZK members dedicated their most recent BFR to the memory of their beloved Randa, a very special Greater One-Horned rhino. Here, they proudly wear their “Remembering Randa” t-shirts and pose with BFR mascot “Crash.” Photo Credit: Matt Carey

My favorite part of BFR is

SR: At the end of the night when I’m sitting there with the last few volunteers, they’re helping me get everything loaded into the cars and we are counting the money from the registration table and the raffle and everything else.  It’s just small chit-chat about the night, how we felt about it, how happy it made us, how happy we are that it’s over…and then you see the total and you’ve realized how much money you just raised to help rhinos, and you know that can make a huge difference.

TP: My favorite role in this event is getting zoo staff involved. Our zoo employs well over 200 people, and only about 15% are in animal programs. I try to reach out to the other 85% and get them motivated to participate. I organize a BRF social event held during zoo hours, and invite everyone to stop by for a few minutes, have a treat, learn about BFR and sign up for a ‘meet and greet’ with our rhinos. I love watching people’s expression when they touch one of the rhinos.  Everyone is always amazed at how gentle they are, and at how much they love the attention. That’s where a true connection is made, and from there, passion!

Jacksonville Zoo, Bowling for rhinos, rhino conservation
Jacksonville volunteers are always happy to raise money for rhinos. The Jacksonville AAZK chapter has been participating in BFR since the beginning, in 1987. Since then, all chapters combined have raised over $7 million for rhino conservation! Photo credit: Janel Jankowski

Why is Bowling (fundraising) For Rhinos important to you? How does it make you feel being part of such a large movement?  

JW: I have always believed the best way to make a difference is from the inside. What this means to me is that by being involved at the fundraising level I am part of the solution. Literally putting “boots on the ground”, is to me the biggest impact that can be achieved through fundraising. Without funds, the projects supported by BFR would not be at the level they are. Ten dollars a day pays for one Ranger’s salary for a year. I heard that number and realized that every little bit helps and I wanted to be a part of something that is making a real impact. Of course, I feel great being part of the larger picture of AAZK BFR nationally. One person often feels like they cannot make a significant difference in the world. Together, like-minded people can do amazing things. That is what AAZK National and all the chapters are doing with their BFR efforts. Over $7 million raised to date is a significant impact and I am part of that.

SR: Bowling for Rhinos is important to me because it is such a strong program with direct effects on conservation of rhinos. It grows every year in popularity and funds raised.  It is often a joke that the zoo community is small despite being made up of thousands of people all over the world, but it’s true!  We are all passionate about our animals and want the best for them. So, while it is a large movement, it feels like a small community because we all have the same goal.

TP: One of the best things about this fund raiser is knowing that 100% of the money raised does go directly to conservation. It’s easy to be overwhelmed from hearing through the media about the loss of so much animal life and the ongoing destruction of our natural world. Knowing this money is used by so many people working in the field, dedicating their lives to protect these animals is very gratifying. I’m proud to be a part of this organization. I’m sure BFR will be around as long as there are rhinos that need protecting. I know I will stay involved as long as I am able.

AK: Bowling for Rhinos is important to me because of the how it helped me to see what I am capable of. I have seen many other keepers take on the immense responsibility of planning the event and how they have achieved their goals and been able to apply that new found strength throughout their lives.  

San Diego Zoo, Bowling for rhinos, rhino conservation
It’s not all about bowling! Event coordinators host games and activities throughout the night, so there truly is something for everyone! San Diego’s BFR also keeps it interesting with a costume contest every year! Photo credit: Ion Moe

What message do you hope people will take away from these events?

JW: Our BFR has approximately 400 attendees each year. I hope each of them will reflect on the reason this event exists. I hope they will understand that it is fun and easy to make a REAL difference if we do it as a community or large group. I really think many people want to make a difference but just don’t know how they can make an impact. I hope our event shows them that it is possible for one person’s involvement paired with many can make an impact.

SR: I hope that people take several things away- mainly that their participation helped wild animals.  Second, that there are small things you can do every day – including bowl! – that help conservation around the world.  Lastly, a shirt – so that they can advertise to everyone that sees it that Bowling for Rhinos exists, that rhinos are important, and they need our help.

Bowling for rhinos, rhino conservation, raffle prizes,
Volunteers spend months gathering donations from local businesses and artists that can be raffled off to raise even more money for rhinos. Tampa Bay AAZK displays raffle prizes each with their own bag so you can put your tickets toward the prize you want the most!
Los Angeles Zoo, Bowling for rhinos, silent auction
A silent auction is another popular staple of a BFR event- when time is up the highest bid on the bidding sheet wins. The Los Angeles BFR often has celebrity items, autographs, and artwork that can raise a lot of money for rhinos! Photo credit: Jamie Pham


Do you have suggestions on ways our readers can get involved in rhino conservation?

SR: Stay informed – there’s a lot of information on social media, with quite a few facebook pages (both organizations and people) dedicated to rhino specific projects.  At the very least, Google AAZK or BFR for your area and find events around you.  Chapters all over the country host events year round that benefit all sorts of animals – and keystone species, like rhinos, are just that – keys to conservation.

TP: There are so many ways to help rhinos! If there’s not a zoo nearby that has a BFR event, get on the internet and look around. You can also organize your own event. The most important thing to do is become informed and share your knowledge. Apathy is the one thing rhinos don’t need right now!

AK: There are over 85 chapters that participate in some sort of BFR event or activity around North America, so there is an event near you! Go find that event and volunteer or even just attend. If there isn’t an event, create one! You can reach out to any chapter for help, we are all working towards the same goal; to save rhinos!!

Tampa Bay AAZK, Bowling for rhinos, rhino conservation
Tampa Bay AAZK volunteers getting ready for the event. Hundreds of people show up to Bowling For Rhinos for some fun- whether bowling or not, they’re all on #teamrhino.

IRF would like to thank ALL who have bowled for rhinos. Whether you’ve planned an event, volunteered, or just enjoyed an evening out, YOU have helped rhinos and are our Rhino ChampionsSpecial thanks to our contributors above, their AAZK chapters and photographers, Sandy Masuo- LA Zoo, Charlie Hyde- San Diego Zoo, and Kevin Shelton- BFR Conservation Coordinator for AAZK (National).

To find an upcoming event near you, check out the Events Tab on our Facebook page or look up your local AAZK chapter and see what events they host throughout the year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *