With Thanksgiving right around the corner, our Cincinnati Zoo family, like many other families around the world, has been reflecting upon everything we have to be thankful for this year. Although the loss of Henry has been devastating for our team, the outpouring of love and support has all but filled the hole in each of our hearts. Facebook comments, sympathy cards, flowers, and various other condolence gifts serve as a reminder of not only the positive impact that Henry had on so many lives, but also of the beautiful and nurturing compassion of the human spirit, especially within our Cincinnati community. Though we can’t help but feel a little heart-broken about a future in Hippo Cove without our beloved papa hippo, we are beyond grateful for the precious time we had with Henry and all the amazing, funny, and special memories we made with him.
One of my absolute favorite Henry memories was from August of 2016. The hippos were brand new to our zoo and everyone was excited and anxious to meet them. A small group of our visitor experience employees had been selected for a special animal encounter as a thank-you for their stellar performances throughout the busy summer season. We surprised them with an up close and personal encounter with Bibi and Henry at a behind-the-scenes training area of the habitat. Both hippos happily munched on some afternoon snacks of produce and beet pulp while our visitor experience team fawned over their size and smells, asked questions and took photos. When the snacks were gone, Bibi made her way back towards the pool and Henry dutifully turned to follow her, but before he left the viewing area, he backed up and to everyone’s horror, began dung-showering right at our group! Everyone was laughing and screaming and scrambling to get out of the line of fire, but more than a couple unlucky staff members were christened by Henry that day. Henry did not even bat an eye at the affect his territorial marking had on our group, but we spent the next 5 minutes laughing uncontrollably and assessing the defecation damage. A very important lesson was learned that day about leaving a larger space between guests and Henry’s business end.
While the members of the hippo care team replay fond memories like this in our minds, we are also busy observing how the remaining members of our mini-bloat are managing the loss of their patriarch. While it is impossible for us to know what Bibi and Fiona might be feeling or thinking, on the surface, it appears as though both are handling the loss fairly well. Overall life has gone on as usual, and they continue to do well with each other, eating, playing and growing in their relationship. It seems as though Bibi is more aware of Henry’s absence as she has been observed initiating contact calls, presumably trying to locate him or call him back to the bloat. Fortunately, and perhaps out of necessity, many animals seem to be fairly resilient when dealing with loss, quickly accepting the change and moving on with life as the unforgiving wild does not allow much time for grieving. However the girls may be coping with Henry’s loss, we are grateful that Bibi and Fiona have each other.
Many of our zoo visitors and cyber fans are also curious about how the hippos’ care and management will change during the chilly winter months in Cincinnati. In general, it must be at least 50°F and sunny outside for the hippos to be given access to their outdoor habitat, but even this is subject to change at the care team’s discretion and based upon the needs of our hippos each day. Fortunately, the outdoor pool is heated and kept at 65°F or warmer through the winter months, and even on cooler days the hippo girls are usually given access to both indoor and outdoor spaces so that they can choose where they’d like to spend the day. There are 2 heated and filtered indoor pools inside the building as well, so even if it’s too cold to go out, the girls still have plenty of space to swim and exercise inside. Additionally, keeper staff work busily throughout the day to offer feedings at multiple times and provide fun and interesting new forms of enrichment to keep the girls mentally and physically stimulated through the winter season. Painting, scent enrichment, new foods to try and new toys to play with are just some of the ways we keep life interesting for our hippos indoors.
Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, the winter months give keeper staff our best opportunity of the year to build relationships and train with our animals. One crucial element of training is simply building trust by establishing and developing a relationship with the animals in our care. When the hippos spend colder days inside the building, the care team has many more opportunities throughout the day to interact with our animals and form those all-important bonds. Once the relationship is developed and trust is established, keepers can then begin training the husbandry-based behaviors that help us take better care of our animals, like tusk and tooth management, voluntary blood draws and ultrasounds, and even teaching our hippos to swallow gel capsules in the event that it might be needed for medicating them in the future. Training, like enrichment, is not only physically stimulating, but also challenges our animals mentally, keeping their lives dynamic, interesting and rewarding.
So while the colder months may mean less public viewing opportunities, they are anything but boring for our hippo girls behind-the-scenes. This winter, we will do our best to share stories, pics and video of BiFi so that you don’t miss any of the important milestones or suffer from Fiona withdrawals. And be sure to check in with us at the end of January as Fiona celebrates her first birthday on the 24th! That will be a virtual party you do not want to miss! Happy Thanksgiving to you all! This year, we are most thankful to have your continued love and support!