Hippo Blog #8: Family Reunions

Posted July 3, 2017 by Wendy Rice
Bibi and Fiona – aka BiFi

As many of you have seen from the numerous social media pics and videos, Fiona and Bibi have been doing great together! The speed and fluidity with which the two have developed their bond has been hugely beneficial to Fiona’s mental, social and physical well-being. Bibi has astounded our care team with her patience, tolerance and attentiveness towards Fiona. She has demonstrated a very real understanding that Fiona is a baby and must be interacted with and handled in a gentle way, a stark contrast to some of her interactions with Henry! Since Fiona spent so much of the beginning of her life in the care of humans, we don’t know if Bibi and Fiona understand that they are mother and daughter, however their fondness for each other cannot be denied and Bibi has definitely taken on the roll of mentor to our little hippo baby. Both genuinely seem to enjoy their mouthy and slobbery interactions, and Bibi seems intent on teaching Fiona how to behave like a proper hippo, even gently disciplining Fiona when necessary. When the two went outside together for the first time, we watched in amusement as Bibi attempted unsuccessfully to keep Fiona safely in the shallow ends of the exhibit pool, ultimately giving up and embracing Fiona’s willful independence (just like the rest of the human care team have learned to do!). 

Bibi and Fiona in the shallow part of the hippo pool.


With each passing day, Fiona and Bibi’s relationship has grown by leaps and bounds, and the two are now regularly spending several hours a day together. To the delight of many lucky zoo patrons, some of that time together is even spent on exhibit during operating hours! Fiona’s care team have affectionately been referring to the pair using a combination of their names: BiFi (pronounced “beefy”).  As BiFi continue to build familiarity and comfort with each other, we are gradually increasing their amount of time together with the hopes of housing the two in the same shared spaces at all times by the fall.
Henry licks Fiona

While BiFi have been getting the majority of the social media attention, there is another relationship being established quietly behind the scenes. In contrast to our initial predictions and expectations, Henry and Fiona have been having a harder time getting comfortable with one another. We have followed essentially the exact same introduction process that we used with BiFi. First Henry and Fiona were spending time next door to each other in the howdy set-up with a protective barrier in place to ensure the safety of both. The gaps between the bollards allowed the two to get nose-to-nose, sniffing, nuzzling and even licking each other to build familiarity and comfort. After several weeks of observed positive interactions during that time, we felt comfortable and ready to move on to the next step, creeping the doors open and allowing Fiona to enter Henry’s stall when she felt ready. 

Keepers closely monitor the interactions, reading body language and ready to intervene if necessary. Several “distraction” devices are kept on hand that can be used to essentially startle, distract, or separate the animals in the event of a fight. Additionally, Henry’s favorite foods are stored nearby (to entice him away from Fiona if needed or to reward him for positive interactions) and Fiona is always left with at least 2 “escape routes” where she can leave Henry’s space if she feels uncomfortable.
So far, the introductions have been extremely short in length and during those times, both Henry and Fiona seem wary of each other and uncomfortable with the idea of sharing space. At times, Henry will open his mouth wide and swing his head towards Fiona, letting her know: “I don’t really want you near me.” Fiona, ever the clever little hippo, reads Henry’s standoffish behavior and responds appropriately by keeping a fair amount of space between them most of the time. When she does venture into his holding, she sort of enters slowly and then scampers past him really quickly, back over to the next safe spot across the way. At times, it seems as though Henry deliberately blocks Fiona’s access to his space by holding his head in front of her creeped doorways as if to say: “You just stay over there and I’ll stay here and we won’t have any problems.” On the rare occasions where the two do interact in that shared holding space, we’ve observed Henry licking and sort of scooting Fiona around with his mouth, and Fiona’s usual response is to sit down (which is a baby hippo’s way of indicating submission). Usually the introductions end with the two choosing not to share space together.
While Henry and Fiona’s interactions might feel a little disappointing overall, I think it’s really important to note that the behavior we are seeing from Henry is NOT aggressive. Henry hippo is currently tipping the scales at right around 3400lbs (literally 10 times Fiona’s size) and it would be extremely easy for Henry to injure Fiona if he wanted to. Rather, it feels as though Henry is just a little unsure of Fiona and what their relationship should be. From a natural history standpoint, an adult male hippo should be completely comfortable with a female baby joining the bloat. However, it’s important to keep in mind that while Henry has been a father before, the last time he shared space with a baby was around 20 years ago. So for all intents and purposes, Henry probably feels a lot like a first-time dad and is likely unsure of how to act around Fiona.
Big daddy Henry
Additionally, Fiona’s birth and upbringing has been anything but traditional. In the wild, mothers keep their baby hippos away from the bloat for the first 10-14 days of their lives while mother and baby bond with each other and the baby gains its strength. The mother and baby would then return to the bloat but even at that point the baby hippo has very limited interactions with its father. Hippo dads aren’t particularly involved in the rearing of their offspring and instead spend their days defending their bloat from any perceived threats. Here in Cincinnati, Henry has a pretty sweet gig with literally no threats to worry about. There are no other male hippos trying to move in on his lady, and the lack of crocodiles and lions in their habitat means no predators for Henry to chase off. The end result is that Henry spends a lot more of his time being a “family man” and interacting with Bibi and now Fiona.
It may take some time for this family reunion, but we appreciate the optimistic design from Cincy Shirts!

At this point, it feels very much like Henry is tolerant of Fiona, but he is still a little uncertain about their relationship and how they should interact with each other. Moving forward, there are a number of variables that keeper staff can adjust to see if it helps Henry and Fiona develop a more comfortable relationship, including adding Bibi to the equation and allowing all 3 to interact simultaneously. (This of course is the ultimate end goal: all 3 hippos spending the majority of their time together in a shared space.) With Bibi added to the equation, she might model appropriate interactions for Henry and make him feel more at ease about Fiona. And there’s also a chance that she will help establish the relationship between Henry and Fiona by intervening and defending Fiona if Henry is out of line. However, Henry has developed quite the codependency on Bibi over the last year, and he may not like the idea of sharing his “Bibi time” with Fiona, possibly creating even more tension between the two. 

Ultimately, the care team will continue to work together daily, observing the hippos’ interactions and weighing the pros and cons of every possible scenario before making any major changes. Our running theme of patience and moving at Fiona’s pace again holds true for this phase of our bloat’s development, and we will continue to move at a pace that is slow, steady and producing positive results. In the meantime, we are beyond thrilled to see the incredible progress that Fiona and Bibi have made in their relationship and we are working towards increasing their amount of time together. We will continue to cultivate BiFi’s forward progress while diligently working to establish Fiona and Henry’s (Fionry’s?) relationship behind the scenes. As always, we thank you all for the immeasurable love and support you’ve shown our hippo and zoo family. We will keep you posted! #TeamFiona!