hippo keeper


Hippo Photo Goes Global

Jay Parker and Otis at the San Diego Zoo

When Jay Parker and his wife, Lauren, visited us here at the San Diego Zoo, they hardly thought that the trip would launch them into celebrity status. But that’s exactly what happened when they took these photographs in front of the Zoo’s river hippo exhibit. The Parkers each took a turn posing in front of the glass, with Otis, our 34-year-old male hippo, right on the other side. Zoo visitors take similar photos every day, but at this particular moment, Otis was facing the glass, exposing some teeth, and actually looked like he was smiling! The picture has since gone “viral,” and people all over the world have gotten a kick out of Otis and his goofy grin.

Otis smiles for Lauren, too!

When the exhibit opened in 1995, we knew that it would offer a very unique viewing opportunity for our visitors: being able to see the hippos in their underwater world. But we never really expected that the hippos would also get a great deal of enjoyment from watching these odd human creatures. Now, obviously, hippos can’t really smile in the traditional sense, but there is no doubt that they can, and sometimes do, interact with guests through the viewing glass. There seems to be no real rhyme or reason as to when or why they choose certain people (it’s usually the quiet ones), but they do. And when they do, it can be a very special feeling. It is exactly this connection to nature that we hope all of our guests will experience, for connecting with nature is the best way to ensure people will do what they can to help conserve and protect our natural world.

With this in mind, the San Diego Zoo has implemented its “Active Zones.” As our guest, you are not just a passive observer; throughout the day, you have an opportunity to chat with keepers, view training sessions, and perhaps even get involved in enrichment activities! In addition, you never know when you may get to meet one of our animal ambassadors as they go for a walk around the grounds. And who knows, maybe you’ll have a unique moment like the Parkers did.

Nate Schierman is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Fleeting Youth.


Hippos: Big Love

Funani (left) and Otis have an underwater date.

Funani (left) and Otis have an underwater date.

After much anticipation, river hippos Otis and Funani were finally reunited on October 15, and we couldn’t be happier with the results!

Otis came to the San Diego Zoo in January of this year, and after a brief quarantine period was introduced to Funani (see previous post, Enormous Changes for Hippos). Funani was less than thrilled about her new roommate and let him know it in no uncertain terms. After about three days together on exhibit, the decision was made to separate the pair.

During the interim, we worked diligently toward making the next introduction a successful one. First, Otis and Funani were given a “howdy,” an area where they could see, and interact, with one another without actually being able to come into contact. Second, we collected fecal samples from Funani. These samples were sent to the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, where hormone levels were analyzed, giving us insight into Funani’s estrous cycle. This information would in turn enable us to determine when Funani was actually ovulating and would therefore be more receptive to Otis. Lastly, for extra insurance, we worked tirelessly on training Funani for tooth trimming.

Tooth trimming is a fairly routine practice for hippos in zoos, but Funani had not yet had any experience with such a procedure. Over the course of the past eight months, our dedicated staff trained Fu to stand still, open wide, and allow us to painlessly saw off the razor-sharp tips of her lower canines using a thin cable called a “giggly wire.” We accomplished this by using preferred foods as positive reinforcement in order for Funani to cooperate. If Funani decided she did not want to participate, we obliged and tried again another day. With these weapons blunted, the chances of Fu doing any serious damage to Otis would be minimized. It took a lot of patience, and special thanks go out to Manager Nicki Boyd, Supervisor Matt Akel, Lead Keeper Sue Averill, and Senior Keepers Dustin Black and John Michel for all of their work toward reaching this goal.

Finally, Fu’s teeth were trimmed and, based on behavioral observations in combination with our fecal sample study, we determined she was coming into estrus. Funani and Otis were videotaped the evening before they were introduced to ensure that Funani’s receptive behavior was accurate. The next morning the decision was made, and the pair was put together on exhibit. We watched as the two came nose to nose without a barrier for the first time in eight months. For the first half hour or so, the two hippos calmly stood face to face, at the bottom of their 150,000-gallon pool. Although quiet, it is quite possible that there was a lot of infrasonic (ultra low-frequency) communication occurring. After that first half hour, Funani was clearly submissive to Otis, and mating took place!

Since the introduction, they have been inseparable! If their breeding was successful, we should expect a newborn hippo come mid-June to early July. Clearly, patience, dedication, and a collaboration of animal care and research staff helped make this introduction a success.

Nate Schierman is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, New Okapi: Shh..It’s a Secret.


Enormous Changes for Hippos

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.