Hippo Baby Blog #3: Little Hippo, Big Personality

Posted February 27, 2017 by Wendy Rice

The last week has been especially exciting for #TeamFiona. We seem to have cleared the most recent set of health hurdles and are finally seeing consistent forward progress. Additionally, as our little girl feels better, the many facets of her complex personality are really starting to show! It’s especially fascinating to watch how the different elements of her personality seem to reflect the natural history of the hippopotamus.

Even though Fiona is still technically 2 weeks premature, she has finally reached normal birth weight at just under 60 pounds. In the last week alone, she has gained 12 pounds and has shown a lot of promising progress: bottle-feeding with more consistency, taking in larger volumes per feeding, and also processing the formula without any gastric incidents. Currently, the nursery team has Fiona on a feeding schedule, offering bottles every 3 hours or so. If Fiona wakes up from a nap early before her scheduled feed time, she will often wander around her nursery space, grunting (sounding very similar to a pig) and bumping her nose into bedding, stuffed animals, caretakers and everything else within her reach in the hopes of finding a full udder.

Nostrils closed

When it is bottle time, Fiona often crawls into the lap of the keeper, impatiently tossing her head up and back, over and over again in anticipation of the bottle. A poorly timed kiss or cuddle could easily result in a fat lip for the care team, but it’s a risk we bravely undertake in the name of conservation. After some corralling and coaxing, Fiona usually settles down, latches onto the nipple and goes into full-blown suckle mode. Baby hippos will often nurse underwater, so closing the nostrils and ears is an innate part of the suckling response. The same is true for Fiona and it is absolutely adorable to observe. She pinches her nostrils shut, tucks her ears down and back and closes her eyes, going into auto-pilot and slurping down 3 bottles in as many minutes. When she’s finished nursing, we usually see one of two responses: she will either pass out immediately, instantly engaging in “nap-mode” right in the lap of the keeper, or she will open her eyes and nose and resume the aforementioned head-tossing, sending the bottle and any leftover milk flying! Either way, she makes it pretty well known that she is officially finished eating.

The conclusion of bottle time usually dictates the next part of Fiona’s daily routine. If she has engaged in one of her bottle and milk-tossing episodes, that’s usually a good indication that she has enough energy for some pool time! Keepers will check and adjust the temperature of her 8ft. pool and then walk Fiona from her nursery space to her aqua playground. Once in the pool, Fiona will romp, splash, dive, roll and of course, poop! She seems to enjoy the freedom and space of the larger pool and gets an opportunity to practice all of the aquatic skills she will need to have mastered before she is reunited with her parents. Pool time is when Fiona is at her most independent, but even then she frequently “checks in” with her surrogate moms for reassurance and support. One of the most interesting aspects of pool time is that it puts Fiona physically closer to Henry and Bibi who then have an opportunity to observe her safely from nearby. During one pool session, Henry bellowed and Fiona stopped everything she was doing to listen wide-eyed to her 3500-pound dad. Bibi has also come over to investigate Fiona’s pool antics, seeming to show interest in the tiniest member of the Cincinnati bloat. For now, pool time rarely lasts beyond 10-15 minutes as Fiona tires quickly and still needs a lot of rest, but as she grows in size and strength, the pool will become a more prominent part of her daily routine.

While pool time seems to be the highlight of the day for both Fiona and the keeper staff,  more often than not, bottle feedings actually culminate in instant-naps. Fiona does seem to be gaining more energy as time goes on, but the vast majority of her daily routine is spent sleeping. A growing preemie recovering from a myriad of health problems needs a lot of rest, roughly 18-20 hours worth at this point. Fiona seems to prefer constant contact with the keeper staff and will often seek us out and crawl into our laps before settling in for some sleep. Fiona’s seemingly cuddly behavior actually reflects the natural history of the hippo, as babies will often climb onto their mother’s backs to rest and sleep as it is safer than being between the 3000+pound members of the bloat and eliminates the need to surface periodically to breathe. Regardless of the motivations behind the behavior, keeper staff are always thrilled when Fiona clambers onto us for a snooze.

While Fiona is resting and relaxing, her care staff stay busy keeping records, changing bedding, applying lotion, refilling humidifiers, swapping out oxygen tanks, and prepping her 20+ daily bottles of formula. We regularly disinfect her nursery space and all the adjacent areas of the building, and we disinfect and refill her pool at regular intervals as well. Additionally, our veterinary, nursery and nutrition staff meet constantly to reassess Fiona’s changing daily needs, making alterations and adjustments as required. Even communicating the daily changes to the 22 staff members involved in Fiona’s care is a large undertaking. The multi-faceted and dynamic care Fiona requires can take its toll on some days, especially because of the emotional attachments we have all inevitably formed with her. But in spite of the hardships and challenges we’ve faced, every step of the journey has been an incredible experience that we all feel privileged and honored to be a part of. And possibly the most impactful element of Fiona’s remarkable story is that it has given us an opportunity to demonstrate and share the important and invaluable work that happens in accredited zoos everyday, all over the world! Thank you to everyone who has followed Fiona’s story so far and offered their love, support and well wishes! We’ll keep you posted as the journey continues!