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Hippo Keeper’s Blog: Hippos Bibi & Henry Get Nose to Nose Behind the Scenes

By now you’ve surely heard the exciting news! The Cincinnati Zoo’s two newest residents are settling into their brand new home, Hippo Cove. When the exhibit opens later this month, you will all have an opportunity to meet and fall in love with both of them, but until then, here is some behind-the-scenes info to tide you over!

Bibi enjoying the pool.

Bibi enjoying the pool.

 It has been 20 years since the Cincinnati Zoo’s collection has included hippopotamuses, so we knew we’d need to brush up on hippo husbandry before the arrival of our pair. Two Africa department keepers, Jenna Wingate and myself, were fortunate enough to travel to the St. Louis Zoo to meet Bibi, a 17-year-old female hippo, and the keepers that have taken care of her for years. The St. Louis team allowed us to shadow them during a typical day so that we could learn all about Bibi and the ins and outs of her care. My first impression of Bibi was how very laid back she seemed. In her St. Louis bloat, Bibi was the largest hippo and therefore the dominant female by default, but I wouldn’t have guessed it based on her calm demeanor. We left with a wealth of knowledge and a mounting level of excitement about bringing hippos to Cincinnati!

bibi-131 A couple of weeks later, it was time for Bibi’s journey to Cincinnati. Shipping hippos can be a tricky business involving extra-large travel crates, flat-bed trailers, trucks, cranes and lots of communication and teamwork. Fortunately, Bibi’s shipment went very smoothly. Though she seemed a little nervous at first (sitting in her travel crate and refusing to come out), she quickly settled into her new home and grew comfortable with her new keepers. Exactly one week later, it was Henry’s turn to make the big move! Henry will be turning 35 years old this August and comes to Cincinnati from the Dickerson Park Zoo. As with Bibi’s shipment, everything went smoothly with Henry, and two of his keepers from Dickerson Park Zoo even spent the rest of that day and the following day with us in Cincinnati to share all of their knowledge with our team. Henry seemed even less phased by the change of location and happily went about his hippo business as soon as he figured out how to navigate the stairs into his indoor pool. We now had 2 new hippos, a brand new exhibit and holding facilities, and all of the inside info on hippo husbandry and care. We were ready and excited to start taking care of these amazing animals.

Henry in the pool.

Henry in the pool.

 Hippos have always been my favorite animal, ever since I was a kid. Getting to work with them now is a dream come true! They are larger than life, weighing in at ~4,000lbs (Henry) and ~3,000lbs (Bibi), and their personalities are even bigger! Bibi is smart and interactive and will approach keepers several times throughout the day with her mouth agape, begging for food or asking us to spray her with the hose. Henry’s personality has been tougher to assess, as he seems completely “twitterpated” by his soon-to-be mate, Bibi. From the moment he laid eyes on her, Henry has been intent on trying to find a path to Bibi. Henry, a proven breeder, has already sired offspring in the past, but he has been without a mate for 20 years! Clearly he cannot wait to spend some quality time with Miss Bibi.    

  Both hippos seem very excited about their outdoor exhibit as well. With a 70,000 gallon pool, a waterfall and a beautiful sandy beach, who wouldn’t be?! During her first time in the water, Bibi dazzled zoo employees with her aquatic acrobatics, spinning and swirling and even doing some somersaults in the deep end!

Bibi spinning and swirling in the water.

Bibi spinning and swirling in the water.

  When it was Henry’s turn to try out the exhibit, it didn’t take long for him to give his seal of approval, which he expressed by dung showering the waterfall. If you are unfamiliar with the term, dung showering is when a hippo defecates and flaps their tail at the same time to spread the dung around and mark their territory. It is shocking, impressive, horrifying and hilarious all at once. But it was a welcomed sign to keepers that Henry was making himself at home.

Dung shower!

Dung shower!

  Since the two hippos are brand new to Cincinnati and each other, the animal care staff has decided to take the introductions slowly, allowing each hippo to become familiar with the holding spaces and the exhibit before they are put together. Overnight, the hippos are given “howdy” access to each other via the indoor pool. On several occasions, keepers have observed Henry and Bibi vocalizing to each other and touching noses through the shift door. The hippos even nap right up against the shift door with their bodies lined up and touching through the gaps. Fortunately, all indications suggest that the two are both compatible and eager to be with each other, a good sign since we have a breeding recommendation for the pair! 

  Official introductions will be happening in the coming weeks, and then keepers will begin putting Henry and Bibi on exhibit together so that they are comfortable in their new space before their grand debut to the public on July 21st. The Cincinnati Zoo family cannot wait for you all to meet handsome Henry and beautiful Bibi this summer! We’ll see you soon in Hippo Cove!

July 6, 2016   15 Comments

Spring Bees

Male Carpenter Bee image by Matt Ward

Male Carpenter Bee image by Matt Ward

Spring has sprung and before long the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden will be inundated with school groups and Carpenter Bees. And while your first instinct will be to avoid them I promise you, the school children are not to be feared. Neither are the Carpenter Bees (Xylacopa viginica), the large, yellow and black flying insect frequently encountered on zoo grounds during spring. Though they are often mistaken for Bumblebees they can be most easily differentiated from them by their black, hairless abdomens; Bumblebees have fuzzy abdomens. Carpenter Bees were so named because the females excavate their nest tunnels in wood. But the bees only nest in the wood, they do not feed on it; Carpenter Bees feed on nectar and pollen. And while Carpenter Bees can sometimes damage wooden structures the damage is occasionally caused by woodpeckers working to excavate the bees themselves for food.

Carpenter bees overwinter as adults and are among the first insects observed in spring. Each male stakes out a territory in the vicinity of a nesting female awaiting the opportunity to breed. Any other males entering the territory will be chased away and just about anything else entering the territory will be investigated. Females will reuse old tunnels or excavate new ones. Within each tunnel is a series of small chambers. A single egg is left in each chamber along with a small amount of nectar and pollen to nourish the larvae. Young Carpenter Bees will emerge from their chambers in late summer to feed on nectar in preparation for a long winter’s hibernation. The following spring they’ll emerge and begin the cycle all over again.

The Carpenter Bees encountered on zoo grounds are generally males, who’ll investigate anything that comes into their territory. Males can be easily differentiated from females by the gold or white marking between their eyes. Carpenter Bees are large and fast flying so it’s easy to see why people mistake their curiosity for aggression. But there’s really nothing to fear; male Carpenter Bees, like all male bees, wasps or hornets cannot sting. The stinger is a modified ovipositor (egg laying organ) which males don’t have. Female Carpenter Bees are capable of stinging but rarely do unless harassed.

Carpenter Bees are probably the most common bees in greater Cincinnati. The Carpenter Bees you’ll encounter at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden are going about their lives the way their species has for countless millennia. They just happen to be doing it at a zoo instead of in a deciduous forest.

Winton Ray
Curator of Invertebrates & Aquatic Animals
Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden

March 30, 2016   2 Comments

Sara. Remembrance of a life well lived.

By: Cathryn Hilker, Founder of the Cincinnati Zoo’s Cat Ambassador Program


Cathryn and Sara in 2000

As so many cheetahs before her, Sara came to live on our Mason farm when she was 5 weeks old. We intended to raise her with an Anatolian shepherd dog so she could have a companion for herself but also a companion who could speak to the program of wildlife management in Namibia where these dogs are widely used for predator control.  Captive cheetah are often raised with a dog, as they make excellent companions, but not always. As soon as this little cheetah named Sara saw our little Anatolian puppy the cat attacked the dog with such a ferocious attitude that I had to separate them.  Their relationship became even worse over the next several days until I sent the puppy back and got a much bigger and older Anatolian dog. This change worked well and Sara and Alexa where lifelong companions.  They did school shows, summer shows, tv appearances and much more until Alexa retired, leaving Sara to continue alone. Upstairs she went, downstairs, elevators, moving stairs. She did all that and more, never failing to do her part.


Sara and her companion Lexi

The joy of running is in the heart and the ancient memory of every cheetah. Sara was no different. At home in her first few weeks we only did short runs in her fenced in yard but the day came when I wanted to see how much Sara could do. I was there with her when the joy and the play of running suddenly turned serious for her.  It was a Reds baseball cap that triggered her natural instinct to run with utter resolution. To chase, to catch, to hold. I could hardly get the cap away from her. Then she knew what running meant to the cheetah. It made her break her own record for speed, when the National Geographic filmed her, at age 11, running 61 mph. 100 meters in 5.95 seconds.


She will be remembered by thousands of school children who heard her loud purr or heard her nails clicking on the table top where she stayed during the program. My memories are imprinted in my heart and mind of a tiny brave little cheetah who grew up and turned into the elegant animal that the mature cheetah is. The claw marks from her tiny little claws when she was a cub remain on my bedspread to this day and the hole she chewed through my zoo jacket and the awkward job I did of sewing it up will remain there for the rest of my life.


photo by Jill Halpin

We will miss Sara’s eyes, fixed on our eyes, always asking “what next”?  Indeed Sara, what next, in your giant shadow of grace other cheetahs will follow your lead and our race to educate and tell your story so that your species can always be, waiting to answer “what next”.

January 22, 2016   38 Comments