Hippo Blog: Helping Henry

Posted October 30, 2017 by Wendy Rice

As many of you know, our sweet male hippo Henry has been having health issues for the last few months and you probably have dozens of questions about what’s been going on. Henry has taken our care team on quite the roller coaster. In this blog, I’ll do my best to fill everyone in on the last few months and what Henry’s immediate future may look like.

Midway through July, #TeamFiona was absolutely ecstatic to be celebrating the reunion of our hippo bloat! We had finally put all 3 hippos together outside for the first time and after some initial coaching from Bibi, Henry and Fiona had finally found a rhythm with each other and seemed to be hitting it off. All three hippos would go outside together and spend the majority of their days napping on top of each other, just like any other hippo bloat. It was the fairytale ending that we had all hoped and dreamed of for Fiona and it felt like we could finally breathe a sigh of relief and take a moment to celebrate what an amazing success story Fiona’s life had become. But sadly, our euphoria was short-lived. Henry began to lose his appetite for no apparent reason and his stool output was not normal (diarrhea).

On the surface, a decrease in appetite (and subsequent decrease in defecation) isn’t necessarily a reason for alarm and any number of issues could have been the cause. Looking through his records from Dickerson Park, we learned that in the past, Henry had occasional bouts of decreased appetite, but that he always seemed to come back around to his old self within a week or two. At 3650lbs, Henry was at his highest weight since arriving in Cincinnati so we weren’t terribly concerned about him skipping a meal or two. Additionally, hippos are notoriously hardy animals that often thrive under human care, so our panic level was pretty low and we felt confident that we could help Henry overcome this minor health hiccup. The bigger concern at the time was actually whether or not Henry’s affliction might be contagious.

At this same time, Fiona was tipping the scales at a whopping 370lbs, and she had been certifiably healthy for weeks. But the compromised immune system of a preemie might have a hard time fighting off even the smallest infection, so Henry had to be quarantined away from Bibi and Fiona until we could be certain that whatever was causing his decreased appetite was not something that could be transmitted to the hippo girls. The entire hippo building was sanitized, top to bottom, and Henry moved into the stalls across the hallway so that he would not be in direct contact with the girls. Fecal samples were collected from Henry, and our veterinary staff prescribed pain medicine and antibiotics which Henry took orally mixed with applesauce and beet pulp. His interest in food was limited and he became pickier and pickier about what he would eat. Sometimes he would sample a food item and go as far as chewing it up, only to spit it out on the floor instead of swallowing it. We tried offering different kinds of hay grown from different farms and we gave Henry a variety of produce items (including all of his favorites like watermelon and collard greens) to encourage him to eat. Probiotics were added to his diet to provide him with good bacteria and yeasts that would promote gut health, and additional medicines were prescribed to treat and prevent stomach ulcers in case that was the culprit. Our veterinary, nutrition and care teams were attacking this ailment from every angle and with every bit as much tenacity as we had dealt with Fiona’s myriad of health problems. As one zoo guest commented on Facebook, “After Fiona, treating Henry should be a walk in the (zoological) park!”, and we felt the same way.

Henry and Fiona

When Henry’s fecal tests all came back negative, we knew that whatever was affecting Henry was not contagious and could not be transmitted to Bibi or Fiona, so we resumed managing the hippos as a bloat of three. With a number of possible causes now ruled out, we began considering other less likely and more abstract sources. We considered tooth, tongue and throat issues, but nothing seemed to be abnormal when Henry would open wide and allow us to investigate his mouth. And the selective and inconsistent patterns of food consumption made it all the more puzzling. Some days he would eat a food item in bulk and then completely lose interest in it, opting for something different a few days later. Aside from the eating issues, Henry seemed to be himself in almost every other capacity. He was alert and interactive with keeper staff and still dutifully following Bibi around like a lost puppy. Fiona was a bit too playful for him at times but the majority of the time, all three hippos would spend an entire day napping together peacefully under the waterfall. It was confusing and frustrating, but we limped along offering different food options, taking notes, medicating, and trying to figure out why Henry had become such a picky eater.

From mid-August to mid-September, Henry showed slow but consistent improvement and was doing well enough that we began to transition him very slowly back to his normal diet and routine. All the specialty food items that had been added to encourage his appetite were gradually being phased back out, the supportive medicines were being reduced and we had begun to ease him back outside during the day with Bibi and Fiona. It appeared as though Henry was on the mend and we were cautiously optimistic that the worst was behind us.

But towards the end of September, Henry’s appetite and eating habits inexplicably began to deteriorate once again. We did an about-face and reintroduced all of the supportive elements that seemed to help the first time around, but Henry continued to decline. He became pickier and pickier until he was barely eating anything and he began losing weight.  Additionally, he became more lethargic and less interactive with keeper staff and even his interactions with Bibi and Fiona diminished. In mid-October, with few options remaining, we decided to anesthetize Henry so that our veterinary staff could safely conduct a full and thorough physical exam to try and determine the cause of the mystery illness.

Bibi & Henry

Anesthetizing an animal for a procedure is always risky, even when the animal is in perfect health, so everyone on the care team was extremely nervous about the procedure. Thankfully, Henry’s exam went relatively smoothly and allowed our vet staff to collect blood and fecal samples, examine Henry from nose to tail (everything seemed to be in good health), administer medications, and even transfer some of Bibi’s healthy gut bacteria into Henry’s stomach (a treatment known as “transfaunation”). At the end of the procedure, Henry rested and recuperated while the care team anxiously awaited the results of the blood work.

Within 24 hours we had our answers. Henry’s white blood cell count revealed that his body was fighting a very serious infection internally. Additionally, and even more worrisome, Henry’s kidneys appeared to be shutting down. We immediately began an aggressive treatment plan focused on getting antibiotics into Henry to help his body battle the infection with the hopes that his kidneys could recover and heal as well. About a week and half later, Henry’s appetite and lethargy had still not improved, despite our best efforts to treat him, so we collected blood again to reassess Henry’s health. This time, our team was shocked but thrilled to see that almost all of Henry’s blood values were within normal ranges! It was encouraging information, but it did not explain why Henry’s behavioral health continued to deteriorate.

Since then, our veterinary, nutrition and care staff have continued to work diligently around the clock to treat Henry, and in theory the treatments should be working. But for whatever reason, Henry’s body is not responding. The median life expectancy for male Nile hippos is 35. At 36 years old, our sweet Henry hippo is already in his golden years, and despite our best efforts, his health and quality of life continue to decrease each day. We’re doing everything we can to keep him comfortable.

As always, our care team is eternally grateful for the endless love and support you’ve shown us and our animals, especially through the toughest of times.