Tuesdays Are Play Days for Growing Hippo Baby at San Diego Zoo

PrintSince she was born on March 23, Devi, a five-month-old baby hippo at the San Diego Zoo, has been growing in both size and personality. As she was let out into the hippo pool this morning along with her mom, Funani, she immediately began a boisterous activity session. These usually last two hours or more.

John Michel, senior animal keeper at the San Diego Zoo, noted that Devi is now completely comfortable with using the deepest part of the pool, where she can practice her newly learned maneuver: a “barrel roll.” She was also having a great time on Tuesday, Sept. 1 playing with a piece of plant material that floated by. Devi is still nursing (hippo calves nurse for up to a year), but she is starting to pick up and mouth food that Funani is eating.

In the wild, hippos spend up to 16 hours a day in the water, so having access to the pool four days a week provides Devi a chance to kick up her heels and play like any youngster. It also gives her the opportunity to thrive by building muscles and learning important maneuvers from mom that she would need in the wild, to protect her from predators.

Devi and her mom share the exhibit with Devi’s father, Otis. Mother and daughter can be seen on exhibit Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays.

The hippopotamus is listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The primary threats to hippos are illegal and unregulated hunting for meat and the ivory found in their canine teeth, and habitat loss. Hippos can still be found in a number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes on-site wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of these entities is made accessible to children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network, reaching out through the Internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide. The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.




Baby Hippo!

Congratulations, Funani and Otis!

After a rocky first start to their relationship (see Hippos: Big Love), river hippos Funani and Otis are now proud parents! On January 26, 2011, at about 11:30 a.m., Fu gave birth to a bouncing, baby…hippo. Hippos are a notoriously bellicose species, especially mothers with calves. Fu is no exception; therefore, we have been unable (as of yet) to definitively sex the little one. San Diego Zoo veterinarians have gotten a good visual and determined that our newest addition is healthy and doing well. This comes as no surprise, since this is Funani’s fourth offspring. It is, however, her first calf with Otis. The genetic pairing is a boon to the zoological population.

While motherhood is old hat for Funani, this is my first opportunity to work with a hippo calf and a chance for the two of us to learn a lot together. After just a few days, the little one has already learned tons. Unlike other neonates, hippo calves need to learn how to walk AND swim. In fact, this youngster was born in the shallow water of our river hippo exhibit, in front of a very excited audience of guests and employees, and immediately swam around to mother’s loving face. Soon, mother Fu was nudging the little one up onto the beach to take its first wobbly steps.

Boy or girl?

Nursing is another tricky task. They can, of course, nurse on land like other youngsters of the African wilderness, but they can also nurse underwater. Hippo calves can’t hold their breath for very long, though, and must come up for air pretty often.

The calf has learned to strictly obey mother’s rules and warnings. This is crucial for survival in the wild. When something strikes Mom as suspicious or dangerous, she communicates with the young one using short, but stern, grunts. You can bet there is also a great deal of infrasonic (ultra low-frequency) communication as well. The Zoo’s okapis (which also communicate through infrasound) have been paying a lot more attention to their neighbors these days. One could surmise the new voice of the calf is what has got them rapt.

Most recently, mother and calf have started venturing into the hippo barn. After three days on exhibit, there was quite a bit of clean up for us. But soon we had the pair back out for our guests to enjoy.

Funani has demonstrated herself to be a very dedicated and gentle mother. She can maneuver the kid around with the slightest of prodding from her huge snout and is very careful to know exactly where baby is before taking a step or lowering her massive frame.

So, what about dad? Unfortunately, male hippos are not the most trustworthy of parents. So, to be safe, we went ahead and separated Otis and Fu well before we determined she was due to give birth. For now, Otis is being held off-exhibit in our barn, where he has his own pool to laze around in.

We have yet to get a weight on this calf, but newborn hippos can weigh between 50 and 100 pounds (23 and 45 kilograms). Generally, they are fully weaned after six to eight months. So, come get a glance quickly, for it won’t be long before the youngster is a multi-ton leviathan like its parents!

Nate Schierman is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Hippo Photo Goes Global.


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.