Ordinarily, I am not a fan of zoos. I prefer to see wild animals in the wild. However, I do understand the purpose of zoos: To introduce animals to visitors that they would not get to see in the wild, conserve endangered species and encourage people to participate in those conservation efforts.
For example, when zoo visitors see an orangutan, they also see signage asking them to consider not using products that contain palm oil because oil palms are grown on plantations in habitat that formerly were tropical rainforests. They learn that the equivalent of 300 football fields of rainforest are being destroyed every HOUR. In other words, by avoid certain shampoos (Head and Shoulders), soaps (Dove), and foods (Skippy peanut butter, Cadbury candy, Ritz crackers, Oreo cookies), everyday citizens can help to save the planet and the orangutans.
I get that. But I still like to see wild animals in the wild when I can.
However, the Cincinnati Zoo holds a wild animal that has fascinated the world and especially my family. Fiona, a Nile Hippopotamus, was born six weeks premature on January 24, 2017 She only weighed 29 pounds when a full-term hippo baby weighs between 55 and 120 pounds! She was unable to stand and required bottle feeding of mother’s milk and infant formula.
Fiona’s mother, Bibi, was the first hippo to be milked. Her milk was analyzed to make sure that Fiona got all the appropriate nutrition, but when Fiona was a month old and her teeth started coming in, she refused to drink from the bottle. A catheter was inserted to deliver IV fluids by staff at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
Fiona, named for Princess Fiona in the movie, Shrek, finally took her first steps at twelve days old. Her life was in guarded condition, and it took round the clock care from zoo staff, to help her survive. When they were sure that she would live, caregivers believed it was time to introduce Fiona to the world through social media. She became an Internet sensation as viewers watched her learn to walk, to swim and finally reunite with her parents, Bibi, and Henry.
Even after seeing all the videos and hearing her story, I did not expect to have such a strong reaction to the “little girl” (now at age three, a whopping 1200 pounds). Even a brief glimpse of her pink tummy as she rested on her side near the back of her enclosure made me giddy. While her mom swam around and around their pool, Fiona slept on.
Finally, I left to see the rest of the zoo hoping if I came back to the pool later in the afternoon, she might be awake.
The zoo is carefully arranged with lots of natural habitat for the animals, places for enrichment like swings and balls, and opportunities for them to hide if they are tired of gawkers. We spent over half a day seeing chimpanzees, cheetahs, white lions, wildebeests, elephants, and snow leopards. The African painted dogs were fascinating as they interacted much like domesticated dogs. They chased each other, roamed in a gang, and jumped over rocks. The Meerkats were clever, too. When a helicopter flew over the zoo, they stood on the back feet and watched it circle.
We even fed giraffes and saw Remus, the support dog for a cheetah named, Kit, take a walk around the zoo.
We also saw the zoo’s newest little star, a baby black rhino calf named Ajani Joe.
But, in the back of my mind was Fiona. Would I be able to see her swim and play? When we finally returned to her habitat, she and Bibi were in the back of the enclosure halfway into a cave like entrance. I figured I would have to settle for a view of her butt. Until suddenly, Bibi turned and raced into the water. I held my breath. Would Fiona follow? Like every other six-year-old watching, I squealed when Fiona also dove into the pool circling in front of the glass, rising to open her large hippo mouth above water and sliding back down the glass.
Despite rules about social distancing, I am sure I knocked a few kids and their parents out of the way in my effort to become up close and personal with the little hippo. Pictures of me with Fiona in the background reflect my star struck delight. “It is like seeing a movie star,” I exclaimed.
On my way out of the zoo, I stopped in the gift shop and bought a Fiona T-Shirt and mask. Now, if I can just figure out how to get Fiona to autograph them!