From Rags to River Horse: Why Fiona the Star Hippo Had a Rough Start
If you haven't yet heard of Fiona the Hippo, you might be the only one.
"Fionamania" as the New York Times recently branded it, has swept the nation. And it's easy to see why.
The ten-month-old hippo has 600 pounds of chubby cuteness wrapped in her leathery body. Scientifically, with her large head and big, round eyes, you'd be hard pressed to not find her adorable. But to top her looks, Fiona has developed a charismatic personality. Videos show her bounding across her enclosure and even photo-bombing a couple's engagement photo.
What's perhaps most endearing about Fiona is her success story. When she was first born six weeks premature last January at the Cincinnati Zoo, her keepers weren't sure she would make it. The zoo's veterinary and neonatal teams stayed with Fiona around the clock. She was even attached to oxygen tubes to ensure her underdeveloped lungs would make it.
It's a time that Christina Gorsuch, the zoo's curator of mammals, remembers well.
"I spent many an afternoon and evening with her," she said.
The adorable, chubby gray cherub has become famous for playfully leaping into water and into people's hearts, but she may one day grow up to play an important conservation role for her vulnerable species. Here's how—along with answers to all your other Fiona questions:
What do we know about Fiona's species?
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, there are likely 115,000 to 130,000 wild common hippos in the world. When last assessed, their populations were relatively stable, but conservationists are concerned that climate change and habitat loss may impact their numbers in the future.
Where did Fiona's parents come from?
Fiona's parents are two zoo hippos, named Henry and Bibi. Henry was shipped to Cincinnati from the Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Missouri. Bibi was shipped to Cincinnati from the St. Louis Zoo, but she was born in Disney's Animal Kingdom. It's there that Gorsuch says she was socialized, around a large number of brothers, sisters, and other juvenile hippos.
Bibi's keepers believe it was this early socialization that may have helped the mother hippo care for Fiona after the youngster was reintroduced to her, following three months of separation.
It was within only an hour of Fiona's birth that zookeepers removed her from Bibi's presence. Fiona was too small and weak to nurse on her own, so the team decided intervention was needed to save the baby. After about three months, zookeepers slowly acclimated the pair, and now they spend most of their time together.
Fiona eventually became acclimated to her father Henry, after more coaxing and close supervision. Video taken by the zoo shows how the old hippo let Fiona inspect his wide-open mouth, poking around her small head.
Henry died on October 31 of this year, but Fiona and Bibi remain in the enclosure. Fiona was named for a character in the Shrek movies.
Aren't hippos dangerous?
"For the record, I am terrified of hippos," said National Geographic explorer and Florida International University ecologist Elizabeth Anderson when asked about her own experiences working with hippos. Anderson was once conducting research in Tanzania when a hippo attacked an empty nearby boat.
"The hippo tried to flip the boat first, but it couldn’t because of the weight of the motor, so then it bit down on one of the air chambers, which exploded," she recounted. "Then the hippo grabbed the boat in its mouth and pulled it into the main river channel, beating it up as the boat and hippo moved together downstream."
Her account isn't unusual. Hippos are responsible for more deaths in Africa than any other mammal.
Gorsuch has a simple explanation for why Fiona and Bibi may be so easy to handle. Hippos tend to show aggression when they need to defend their territory from other hippos or predators, but that's not so relevant in zoos.
"The interactions we have with them are supplying food, so they don't have a reason to be territorial," Gorsuch said.
In her research, Anderson has been surveying how people respond to hippos as new neighbors. Specifically, she has looked at the spread of a small group of hippos in Colombia that are descended from zoo hippos that had been kept by drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Hippos had not been present in the wild in the country before, but survey results suggest that the locals tend to view the animals as more docile than aggressive overall.
Anderson suspects that these hippos may have learned to be more docile through years of captivity. It's also possible that they don't have much territorial pressure. (Read more about Escobar's hippos.)
What will happen to Fiona as she ages?
It's hard to imagine now, but one day baby Fiona will grow up and may even make babies of her own. Gorsuch says this won't happen for another six or seven years, when Fiona reaches sexual maturity.
Zoo animals like Fiona are a part of a network called the Species Survival Program managed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
"They will look at the population of Nile hippos in zoos in North America, and they'll recommend moves and changes," Gorsuch said. As to whether or not Fiona will stay in her hometown of Cincinnati, Gorsuch says, "We never quite know what things will look like."