Jan Gregory, a banker, passed away in May in Sacramento. Five days later, the front page of the Sacramento Bee announced that the Sacramento Zoo had acquired a rare white rhinoceros named J. Gregory.
To the dearly departed’s widower, Kelly Lewis, this was more than coincidence; it was a communique from the universe to include the rhinoceros in his wife’s memorial service.
“It struck me as, at best, fortuitous. Somewhat supernatural, too,” said Lewis, 72, a retired teacher. “It made it clear to me I had to go meet this creature.”
At the zoo, Lewis had a light bulb moment: “I would like to honor one J. Gregory in the presence of another.” He arranged things with the zoo.
On Jan. 9, on what would have been his wife’s 72nd birthday, around 30 mourners, some from as far away as New York, assembled at the zoo for a banquet and memorial featuring the rhinoceros.
“I’m not completely responsible,” Lewis told attendees. “I’m blaming a higher power.”
Some others saw it that way too.
“The coincidence — it’s like fate, don’t you think?” asked Mike Anderson.
“I think J. Gregory is here for a purpose, to bring closure to Kelly,” opined Chuck Glenn.
Others weren’t so sure.
“A bit crazy,” said Rowan Kimmel.
At the banquet, mourners recalled the dearly departed. A bank vice president, Jan Gregory loved opera, theater, Jane Austen and Scotch whiskey.
“She was super intelligent,” said her brother, Todd Gregory, who came from Jeffersonville, Indiana. “Once, playing Trivial Pursuit, she corrected the card, because the answer was wrong on the card.”
And she had a “sparkling” sense of humor. She would have appreciated her send-off, said Natalie Larsen. “I think it’s classic Gregory: It’s quirky, it’s fun.”
Most mourners naturally assumed that the rhino encounter would be responsibly managed and safe. Still, when a rhinoceros is involved, the chances of things going sideways, while small, are never zero.
This is because the white rhinoceros is the third-strongest animal on earth (after the gorilla and African bush elephant). The second-largest land mammals behind elephants, rhinos can grow up to 15 feet in length. Out on the Serengeti, they can be bellicose bullies. J. Gregory tips the scales at 4,500 pounds. But he can still run close to 40 miles per hour.
“They can generate over 8,300 pounds of force when they strike a target or opponent,” the zoo said on its Instagram page. Being hit by a charging rhino would be like being slammed by a barreling truck with two horns — horns as in ouch, not beep.
There is a video online of a rhinoceros in the wild possibly mistaking a nearby Range Rover safari vehicle as a challenge from another male (rhinos have poor vision); to show the pretender who’s who, the beast flips the vehicle over several times, as easily as you would flip a coaster.
“I’m going to find the slowest person beside me in the room so I can stand beside them,” said Mark Doris.
Concerns were not necessarily eased when everyone was asked to sign a “Waiver and Release Form” which read, “I fully understand and agree that the program’s risks, hazards, and dangers, include, among other things, risk of personal injury and illness, permanent disability, paralysis, and even death,” and which asked participants to list an emergency contact.
After a luncheon, zoo employees led the mourners through the zoo and beyond a locked gate into the employees-only area, passing lounging kangaroos and a strutting emu, to the sprawling rhinoceros enclosure.
J. Gregory ambled right over. He is one big boy. A rhinoceros’ head alone can weigh 1,000 pounds. His front horn, slightly curved, is pointed; his back horn smaller, perhaps damaged; his hide coated in dried mud from wallowing, one of his favorite pursuits. Another of his pursuits can be inferred from the fact he fathered six kids at his previous digs, the San Diego Zoo.
He clearly likes interacting with people. “Normally, they are super chill,” said the zookeeper. “He is the chillest.”
Lewis agreed that J. Gregory was — pardon the pun — gregarious. “Such a huge creature and so anxious to get with the people, to mix it up. He’s something of a bon vivant.”
The zookeeper said J. Gregory likes to be scratched — roughly, owing to his thick hide — but warned scratchers to be careful when sticking their hands through the cable fence.
“He’s a sweetheart, but he will absolutely crush you,” the zookeeper warned.
There ensued lots of careful scratching and photo-taking as J. Gregory amiably stood aside the fence, munching a snack from the zookeeper.
“If you’re really giving him good scratches, he’ll kick his back leg out, twirl his tail and drop his junk,” the zookeeper said.
Nobody cared to test that theory.
Afterwards, Lewis said he was happy his wife’s memorial came off well, thanks in large part to the amazing creature that bears his late wife’s name. As a thank you, he pledged to send each attendee a plush rhino from the zoo’s gift shop.
“We need an emblem of our animal spirit,” he said, “and there is none better, I think.”
Michael Fitzgerald is a Stockton columnist.
Correction Feb. 1, 2024: A previous version of the subheading described Jan Gregory as a Stockton banker. She was a Colorado banker who retired to Sacramento.
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