Hippo Blog #7: Fiona’s Adoring Public Awaits

Posted April 10, 2017 by Wendy Rice
Fiona looking out at Bibi and Henry in the outdoor habitat

After a much needed but brief blogging hiatus, we are back to fill you in on the latest in Fiona’s journey, starting with introductions to Bibi and Henry. While we continue to work daily on the process of integrating Fiona in with her parents, we’ve come to the unfortunate realization that it will likely take much longer than we had previously hoped. Preliminary howdies (which involved 2 sets of protective barriers with roughly a 1 foot gap in between) have allowed baby Fiona to observe her mother from a small distance and vice versa. The responses from both Fiona and Bibi have been varying. On some occasions, Bibi seems concerned about Fiona’s close proximity to her food and gives her a sort of “side eye” that Henry is all too familiar with and usually precedes an aggressive display. Other times, Bibi seems completely disinterested in Fiona, barely noticing or acknowledging her presence which is in direct contrast to the occasions where Bibi will sit with her face propped along the barrier and observe Fiona for up to an hour. And every once in a while, Bibi will even come over and lay right next to the howdy barriers, seeming to want to be as close to Fiona as possible. 

For her part, Fiona’s responses to Bibi are similarly diverse in range. Some seem to fall into the categories of observational interest and curiosity. Fiona will watch Bibi munching away at her hay in the stall next door and might walk over to her own pile of hay for a nibble. Other times, she seems to barely notice her 3,000lb. neighbor, opting instead to interact with her human care team. Fiona also demonstrates some fear responses to Bibi as well, darting away from the protective barrier and back to the safety and comfort of the keeper staff. On at least one occasion, Fiona spent an entire night sleeping right against the barrier with Bibi sleeping in the exact same location on the opposite side. Incidents like that one give the care team hopeful optimism for a happy reunion, but at this point the range of reactions from both hippos has definitely been an indication to the care team that we will have to take the process very slowly if we are to have a successful reunion between mother and daughter.

In order to facilitate bonding and safe interaction between Fiona and the adults, our hard-working maintenance team is revamping Fiona’s indoor space once again to alter the protective barriers, removing the space between so that Fiona can actually get nose-to-nose with Bibi and Henry. Every night, the hippos will have an opportunity to interact with each other safely and on their own terms, and the hope is that this nightly interaction will help establish familiarity and comfort with one another until Fiona is ready to share the same space as the adult hippos.

In the meantime, Fiona and her care team will also be marching towards the next great adventure of Fiona’s little life: venturing into the outdoor habitat! Now that spring has sprung and warm weather is here to stay, we are eager to get Fiona out where her adoring super fans will finally get a chance to see her live and in action! Many elements of the outdoor space will be different and unfamiliar to Fiona, and although she has been making incredible forward progress, we will still need to take the process slowly and focus on moving at Fiona’s pace, not our own.

Before Fiona ventures off into the deeper waters of Hippo Cove, she will need to become more comfortable and confident navigating… well, deeper waters! Although she has demonstrated certainty and aptitude in her 2ft deep circular pool, hippos are technically incapable of swimming and they tend to sink like a rock in deep waters. Fiona will have to learn to embrace her body’s density and master the technique of “porpoising” or pushing off the bottom to get herself up to the surface to breathe. Hippos are capable of taking in deep breaths of air to inflate their lungs and increase their buoyancy in the water to combat the density that causes them to sink. If you’ve had the pleasure of observing Henry and Bibi in the underwater viewing area at Hippo Cove, you will be readily familiar with the parabolic patterns of movement they make through the water as they incorporate rising to the surface regularly to breathe. The breath control for buoyancy paired with their naturally dense bodies allows them to sort of moon-bounce along the bottom of the pool! The best way for Fiona to learn this technique will be behind the scenes in our indoor hippo pools where the care team can control the depth of the water and gradually increase it until she’s ready for the big pool outside!

In addition to being comfortable with the physical challenges of the outdoor habitat, the care team is also tasked with preparing Fiona for her celebrity status and the fandom that awaits her when she makes her public debut. Since Fiona’s immune health has been (and continues to be) a cause for concern, we have always limited the amount of people who interact with her so as to minimize her exposure to germs and pathogens. Fiona has never been around large crowds of people and the dynamic sights, sounds and even smells associated with hoards of humans can be very scary for animals at first, especially in an unfamiliar setting. For this reason, the care team will likely begin introducing Fiona to the outside space after hours with no public observation at first. We will slowly begin to introduce small groups of Zoo employees, gradually increasing the amount of people until she is comfortable with large crowds being on the other side of the glass. In the zoo world, introducing animals to novel situations a little bit at a time is called conditioning, and the most important element of conditioning is keeping the experience as positive as possible. It is our goal and responsibility to make each outside experience fun, exciting, safe and positive for Fiona, so that for the rest of her life, she will be happy and comfortable in her role as a zoo animal and ambassador for her species.

We will begin introducing Fiona to the deeper indoor pools over the next month with the goal of beginning her outdoor conditioning sometime in May. If Fiona makes steady forward progress in the pools and subsequently develops her comfort level around large crowds of people, she could be making her public debut in June of 2017. But, as with all things Fiona, it is absolutely crucial that we move forward at her pace and not our own. Our end goal is and always has been a transition to a happy and healthy hippo life for Fiona, regardless of the amount of time and effort it may take. We continue to be overwhelmed by your love, support, understanding and acceptance of all the challenging circumstances that have dictated Fiona’s journey so far, and we truly cannot wait for the day when you all finally have a chance to see her in person at Hippo Cove! #TeamFiona!