Fiona the hippopotamus is an animal celebrity. On January 24, Fiona celebrated her first birthday at her home, the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden in Ohio. Her birthday party was watched by thousands of fans when it was broadcast on the social media site Facebook.
Fiona came to the world’s attention in 2017, when she was born at the zoo six weeks early. It was a struggle to survive for the prematurely-born animal. Healthy newborn hippos weigh 55 to 120 pounds, but tiny Fiona was just 29 pounds. Zoo workers would need to care for Fiona by hand, but this was something no one had done before.
Zookeepers fed Fiona a special hippo formula. They kept her warm with blankets or by hugging her. One time, when Fiona was not drinking enough formula, zookeepers received help from nurses at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. The nurses saved Fiona by giving her fluids directly into her bloodstream using a special IV.
People watched Fiona’s infancy online. Among her biggest fans are children who, like Fiona, were born prematurely. Hundreds sent Fiona letters with a similar message: “I made it, and you will, too.”
Today, Fiona is a healthy juvenile hippo of 650 pounds. Now that she is no longer tiny, some fans wonder if the famous hippopotamus is now dangerous to the people who raised her.
Becoming a Full-Time Hippo
Sadly, 650-pound Fiona can easily injure one of her human friends by accidentally bumping into them. As she continues to grow, the zoo’s curator of mammals, Christina Gorsuch, says that Fiona will transition from being a “part-time hippo, part-time human” to being a “full-time hippo.”
Zookeepers have already started treating Fiona like a full-time hippo. Staff who once held her stopped sharing space with Fiona about a month ago. Luckily, Fiona no longer needs as much care. While she used to be fed by bottle, she now eats hay, grains, fruits, and vegetables. To make sure she stays healthy, zookeepers are training Fiona to swallow pills and have blood drawn from her tail. However, zookeepers must conduct this training behind the safety of metal barriers.
“It’s a little sad to see it over,” admitted Gorsuch commenting about Fiona’s growing older. Unfortunately, Fiona “can very easily hurt somebody, even without meaning to.”
Like many wild animals, hippos can be unpredictable and dangerous. In fact, many consider the hippo to be the world’s most dangerous land animal. It is reported that hippos kill about 500 people a year in their native Africa, but many scientists warn that it is hard to pinpoint an actual figure.
Danger in the Water
In the village of Gouloumbou in the African country of Senegal, the hippopotamus is a problem. In the past ten years, they have killed 25 fishers and injured many others.
Ali Fall experienced a hippo’s fearsome strength while fishing in 2016. “I came with another fisherman to pick up the nets I had left, when the hippopotamus upended our boat,” Fall said. “My friend got away, but it bit into my left leg, then my right.” It wasn’t Fall’s first hippo encounter. “It’s the second time I’ve been attacked, after their first attempt in 2014,” he said. “I’ve cheated death twice.”
Village chief Abdoulaye Barro Watt explained that people in Gouloumbou cannot simply stay away from the Gambia River where hippos live. Fishing is too important to the local economy. For many, the river is their only source of income. “These men are struggling to survive due to these attacks,” chief Watt said. “I have written so many letters to the authorities, even the fisheries minister, to make them aware of the problem.”
Others rely on the river to bathe or to do laundry. Because many Gouloumbou residents do not have access to water through plumbing or wells, they have no choice but to risk an encounter with a territorial hippo. Resident Aminita Sy is one of many who wash clothes in the river. “I’m scared they’ll attack,” Aminata Sy says of the hippos. “That’s why I always stay facing the river.”
Rebecca Lewison is a conservation ecologist at San Diego State University. She has studied hippos in the African country of Tanzania. She says that as people continue to move onto lands that are hippo habitats, since hippos are so territorial, human-hippo encounters will continue to rise.
Walk and Chew, Walk and Chew
Hippos are vegetarians. They do not hunt other animals or people. However, they can injure or kill someone if they feel threatened. Hippos protect their territory with their size, speed, and teeth.
Hippos are big. A group of hippos, called a pod, is led by a dominant male who can weigh 6,000 pounds or more. Females and non-dominant males weigh less, but they are still a massive 3,500 to 4,500 pounds. Fiona’s mother, Bibi, herself weighs 3,000 pounds. Even Fiona, who currently weighs 650 pounds, “could knock us over and take us down with no problem,” admits Christina Gorsuch from the Cincinnati Zoo.
Despite their somewhat awkward appearance, hippos are also surprisingly fast. At speeds of 18-30 miles per hour, a hippo can easily outrun a human. Once in the water, bulky hippos are swift and graceful swimmers. For example, a popular video on the website YouTube showed a hippo chasing a motorboat. At first, the fierce animal almost seemed to keep pace with the vessel. Eventually the boat managed to speed away to safety.
Hippos also have dangerous teeth. A hippo’s lower canine and incisors continue to grow throughout its lifetime. Canines can grow as long as 20 inches, while incisors can grow as long as 16 inches. As these teeth grind together, they get sharper and sharper. Hippos use these teeth to fight off threats from other animals, not for eating. When feeding, a hippo’s lips grasp grasses and pull them into its mouth, where they are chewed by molars. With their molars, Lewison explains, hippos become “lawn mowers.” Groups walk established trails to grazing areas where they “walk and chew, and walk and chew, and walk and chew.”
Keeping a Safe Distance
Even though she loves hippos, ecologist Rebecca Lewison keeps a safe distance from the powerful and unpredictable mammals. “I study hippos, I love them, but I am not going on any of those safaris that go down the Zambezi” river, in Zambia, where loads of hippos live, she says. “They feel threatened, and what do they do? They knock your boat over, and they use the tool that they have, which is their mouth.”
Will Fiona become dangerous like these wild hippos? Gorsuch doesn’t think so. Unlike wild hippos, Fiona is provided with lots of healthy food and fresh water. As a result, she is likely to be much less aggressive. Also, while wild hippos must actively defend their territory, zoo hippos know that they are masters of their own territory. Therefore, they do not feel a need to aggressively defend it.
Sadly, although they continue to miss their special hippo hugs, zookeepers know that they must now always be careful around Fiona.
“We just are very respectful of their size and what they can do with their size,” Gorsuch says. “When she has full-grown hippo tusks, we’re not going to be sticking our hands in her mouth.”
Watch episodes of The Fiona Show at Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.
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