Enormous Changes for Hippos

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Jabba at the San Diego Zoo

Jabba at the San Diego Zoo

On January 24, 2009, one of the San Diego Zoo’s “biggest” attractions was relocated to another facility. After nearly 15 years in San Diego, Jabba, a 25-year-old bull river hippopotamus, now calls the Los Angeles Zoo his home. Funani, the resident female hippo, remains, and joining her, from Los Angeles, will be Otis, a 33-year-old bull. Jabba and Otis were moved on the same day. But exactly how does one move a 10-foot, nearly 5,000-pound animal with 5-inch canines?

Step one:
Find a very large crate.

Step two:
Get the hippo used to being in the crate.

At first, Jabba was a little uncertain about entering the crate, and who could blame him? But with the sparkling water tempting him on the other side, it wasn’t long before Jabba braved the first step and finally walked through the crate. After several days, going through the crate was of no consequence.

Step three:
Add sturdy bars to one side of the crate.

Now that Jabba was used to passing through the crate, it was time to up the ante. The metal bars that would help secure him during shipment were put in place. Jabba’s diet (a mixture of hay and herbivore pellets) was placed inside the crate. After little hesitation, Jabba entered and began happily munching away.

Step four:
Close the door.

Once Jabba got used to the idea of spending time in his crate instead of just passing through it, it was time to see how he dealt with losing the option of exiting on his own volition. At this point, Jabba entered the crate and began eating his meal, per usual. Then, the hydraulic door was closed behind him. Jabba hardly noticed. He was steadily left in the crate for longer and longer periods, until he was comfortably remaining in there for as long as 1½ hours (nearly as long as the trip to Los Angeles would be).

We spent about two months readying Jabba for his move. At the same time, the dedicated keepers at the Los Angeles Zoo worked diligently alongside our efforts to ready Otis for his trip. However, there was little we could do to prepare either hippo for the sensation of being raised into the air and loaded onto a flatbed truck. In spite of this, the loading process went relatively smoothly. Lead Keeper Harold Steyns, Senior Keeper Aimee Goldcamp, and I joined Jabba on his trip. During the transport, Jabba showed little, if any, signs of distress.

Jabba's first dip at the Los Angeles Zoo

Jabba's first dip at the Los Angeles Zoo, his new home

Once at the Los Angeles Zoo, Jabba was hoisted, by crane, up and over the wall into his new enclosure. The procedure went incredibly well! Once released, he immediately took to the water, doing several laps, exploring his new environs. For a brief moment, he stepped out of the pool for a quick snack, but soon returned to the water. It seemed apparent that Jabba was going to enjoy his new home.

Jabba heads for a snack

Jabba heads for a snack

Jabba has been a staple of the San Diego Zoo for a long time. (Read his profile, Hooray for Hippos!) During his stay, he has entertained thousands of people with his antics and shared a lot of love with his keepers. He has even sired three offspring. So, one might wonder, why move him? Animal moves are a common thing in the zoo world. There are many reasons, but probably the most common reason is to promote genetic diversity among the zoo population. As I said earlier, Jabba has already fathered a few babies. His genes are well represented. But Otis does not have any surviving offspring, so his genes have not yet been introduced to the zoo population. We have an opportunity to potentially mate him with Funani and stoke the managed-care gene pool for the entire species!

We have a long way to go before this can happen, though. Otis has undergone a period of quarantine and is now slowly been introduced to Funani (through a protective barrier). The next step will be a face-to-face meeting, and we hope they hit it off. If they do, there is still an eight-month gestation period. But never fear; I will keep you abreast every step of the way!

Nate Schierman is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.