It wasn’t long ago that we shared the news of our ultrasound success with the world. We had made history and captured the first in utero images of a Nile hippo fetus, confirming that one of our zoo’s newest and most charismatic residents, Bibi, was pregnant for the first time in her life. With proof that a little bundle of joy was on the way, our department busily set about finalizing birth plans, baby proofing, and discussing every possible “what if” scenario we might come across. At that point we were roughly 6 months into an 8 month gestational period and we were right on track and prepared for a baby hippo’s arrival sometime in March of 2017.
But even the best laid plans do not always prepare us for the curveballs that Mother Nature sometimes throws. Early on Monday, January 23rd, Bibi started exhibiting behaviors that were consistent with signs of labor. She seemed agitated and uncomfortable, and her usual carefree water acrobatics had been replaced with concentrated and methodical laps around the pool. She held her tail at weird angles and kept rolling onto her sides, trying to ease some sort of discomfort she was obviously feeling. These would have been welcomed signs and indications that labor was imminent, except Bibi’s baby was not due for another 6 weeks. As the day progressed and her behavior continued, we frantically rechecked our records, notes, video and photos, recalculating the timeline, hoping our math was wrong. But at 2:58am on Tuesday, Jan. 24th, Bibi delivered her baby, 6 weeks premature and at least 25lbs too small.
While the vast majority of the focus was on the baby, Bibi had also just been through a pretty shocking ordeal. She had just delivered her first baby. Once the baby was on the ground, it attempted to stand and move around a bit, but was obviously very weak and extremely small. Bibi seemed curious about the baby, but also a little confused. She inspected the baby, lowering her massive head down to the tiny creature and sniffing at her, but ultimately ended up just lying on the ground a few feet away. Keeper staff who had been watching on cameras to provide privacy came into the holding area to assess. They asked Bibi to shift away from the baby into a separate holding so that they could safely put bedding down and do a quick physical exam of the neonate. Bibi readily shifted away from her new offspring, entirely focused on the food presented to her. When keeper staff examined the baby and repositioned her onto dry bedding, Bibi watched from behind the protective barrier but did not appear to be concerned and did not react to our handling the baby.
When Bibi was shifted back into the holding space with the baby, she again inspected it for a bit, scooted it around on the hay, but ultimately decided to just lay down beside it and nap. Keepers continued to observe for approximately 30 minutes to see if the baby could find the strength to make its way over to mom to nurse, but her energy seemed only to wane as the minutes ticked by and she made no forward progress. It became apparent that if this baby was going to survive, it would need intensive, supportive care and the decision was made to intervene.
The keeper, veterinary and nursery staff sprang into action, establishing a make-shift NICU in the warmest part of the hippo building and reaching out to zoos all over the globe. The responses we received made it clear that hand-raising a preemie hippo was not an endeavor many zoos had undertaken. Safely maintaining her core body temperature without drying out her delicate skin became an arduous balancing act, and determining an appropriate formula that most resembled hippo milk proved to be another challenge. Fortunately for us, various rescues and sanctuaries in Africa were able to provide us with critically helpful information based on their own experiences with caring for orphaned baby hippos. Additionally, Bibi’s trained voluntary ultrasound behavior proved to be an ace in the hole when we were able to quickly transform it into a voluntary and safe milking behavior. As far as we know, milking a hippo meant we had accomplished another feat that had not ever been attempted by other zoological institutions, and it allowed us to not only provide the baby with crucially important colostrum, but also gave us an opportunity to have the milk analyzed so that we could precisely develop our formula to match the exact nutritional components of Bibi’s milk. As we set out on our daunting task to nurse the baby to health, the entire staff was hopeful but guarded. The baby’s premature entry into the world meant that she had a very steep uphill climb ahead of her. But being born into a zoological institution full of capable and dedicated caregivers gave her the best chance possible for survival.
A common question circulated around the zoo and around the internet as the story spread: why was the baby premature? It is not uncommon for first time mothers of any animal species to struggle with the labor, delivery and even the care of their first offspring, and similarly, premature births can be a common occurrence as well. It’s not entirely understood why the first time can be so difficult, but there was one element of this baby’s birth that would play a crucial role in the story. Though Bibi spent much of the ~19 hour labor process in the water, for whatever reason, she chose to deliver the baby on land. This fortuitous detail is the only reason we were able to save the baby and may very well be an explanation for the lack of similar scenarios at other zoos around the world. Had the premature baby been born in the water, like many hippos are, her frail body and weakened state would very likely have meant that she would have drowned within minutes before we had a chance to intervene.
But fortunately for all of us, she was born on land. So at the end of the day, in spite of all the odds stacked against her, our sweet little hippo baby was given a real chance at life. Though it breaks our hearts to know that Bibi is not the one caring for the baby, almost immediately, Bibi went back to business as usual and has never attempted to search for the baby, nor has she displayed any signs of stress or depression. In fact, within a week of the birth, Bibi was already beginning to express breeding interest in Henry again (and Henry, all too emphatically reciprocated!). With one preemie hippo already in the nursery, the decision was made to put Bibi on birth control at this time. Our zoo will work with the hippo SSP (Species Survival Plan) to decide if and when Bibi and Henry will breed again in the future.
In the meantime, Bibi and Henry keep playing the role of newlyweds in love as the baby hippo is cared for around the clock by a dedicated team of animal experts. We named her Fiona and look forward to the day when she can be reunited with her mom and dad. Fiona is making forward progress, but today she is still very much a preemie with a lot of hurdles ahead of her. We continue to take it one day at a time and look forward to warm weather and a reunited hippo family of 3.
84 thoughts on “Caring for Preemie Hippo Fiona”
Thank you for making our hippo family feel like part of our families. Your dedication is inspiring.
lOVE TO BIBI AND FIONA and all her care givers. please keep updates coming.
Thanks for keeping us posted! I love hearing how Fiona and family are doing.
I think you have done a marvelous job and each day I look to see if there’s any additional news. I have told many people of Fiona’s challenge ahead of her and they now read her progress. I think you all deserve as much accolade as you can get.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart – Barbara
Thank you for taking such good care of Fiona! You are all amazing!
Thank you so much for everything you have done and will continue to do to help ensure Fiona has the best chances of survival and to thrive. It is amazing to witness this through your blog posts. Thank for the opportunity!! #TeamFiona
The Cincinnati Zoo is doing an amazing job with Fiona.Maybe hopefully in the warmer weather Fiona will be back with Bibi and Henry.
Thanks for all you do.
Thank you for such a detailed report today. You answered a lot of questions I had. I look forward to seeing your posts every day. I think a lot of us want to see her clear to adulthood. She is our baby too!
Me too great information! Thanks
Thank you so much for these updates!!! Prayers for Fiona and for all the staff.
What JOY you have given so many of us by sharing and keeping us updated. I have prayed for Fiona and I am thrilled to see how well she’s doing. What an awesome team we have at the Cincinnati Zoo! Thank you!
I have fallen in love!
Thank you for the daily updates. I look forward to reading and seeing the progress of Fiona. Much appreciation for all the caregivers at this amazing zoo.
Thank you Cincinnati Zoo Staff for your dedication and love for this little Hippo! As well as for all animal species. I’ve loved every picture and post you’ve made of her. Can’t wait to come and see her!
Thank you so much for this news. We are so happy that Fiona is getting stronger and improving in her ability to do normal hippo activities. We appreciate the wonderful care that you have provided for beautiful, little Fiona. It is amazing to watch you help her breathe and learn to swim. We look forward to updates about Fiona everyday.
Much love to Fiona, Bibi and her caregivers. Live in Detroit, but hope to some day visit with my granddaughter Fiona. Keep up the wonderful work! God bless you all.
Thank you for writing and posting this beautiful story of this sweet Hippo family and Fiona’s birth. It has been a joy watching her progress. I look forward to checking in on her daily. I pray that she grows stronger each day and can be reunited with her mama !! A big thanks to all of the staff at the Cincinnati Zoo for your care and dedication and a job well done!! Blessings to all!! ❤❤
Such an adorable little creature with a remarkable story thanks to all of her caregivers! Pray that her mom & dad love her just as much as we do. Thanks for the detailed blog, very interesting!
Thank you for all the updates on baby Fiona. All of you have done a fantastic job caring for her. Keep of the good work!!!!
I am so amazed at the dedication, and the love of all animals, that the Cincinnati Zoo staff and volunteers have. Surely they have been chosen by God to help this beautiful little Fiona. I pray that every day brings her just a little farther in her recovery. I can’t wait to see her when Bibi, Henry, and Fiona are all reunited.
Thank you and God bless you all for caring for this miracle baby!!
Another thought- would love to eventually see a children’s book of Fiona’s story. Thanks.
This is nothing short of a miracle. Everyone at the Zoo is so very dedicated. This has also cost a small fortune to do. If everyone who can will donate only $5 it would really help. She still has a way to go but compare the birth picture with today–she is so cute!!
Wonderful preparation and results!
Hope Fiona’s progress continues and she will return successful to her family.
Absolutely wonderful story!! Thank you so much for sharing..
I can’t get enough of this amazing story! All of the caregivers seem so very dedicated, and while we see all of the cute pictures, you folks are doing the hard work, day and night. Please continue to share!
What an amazing and awesome staff at the Cincinnati Zoo. Thank you so much for allowing all of us to be a part of precious baby Fiona’s life. I look forward to the daily updates and photos. She certainly has captured the worlds attention! Prayers continue for Fiona and all of her special caregivers.
Everyday since Fiona was born, my kids ask for updates on how she is doing. Thank you for sharing her journey with us. The staff at the Cincinnati Zoo are so talented and amazing at what they do to care for all of the animals. We look forward to more Fiona updates.
Your doing an amazing job and I look forward everyday to a Fiona update. Since Bibi didn’t take much interest in Fiona at birth and has not missed her, what are the chances of Bibi not accepting her when they are reunited?
Thank you for all the wonderful work you are doing!!
So happy our premature baby hippo is improving. Thank you for giving input on her Mom Bibi & details of labor. Will the baby be able to return to mom, since she didn’t show much maternal interest.
Amazing story! Thank you for all of the insight before Fiona was born. I have been following since the untrasounds and then day of birth and your team has done some amazing work! Keep up the great work and we can’t wait to see Fiona! I know your team will do everything to nurse her out of this difficult stage.
Love to see the updates on baby Fiona! It’s a highlight of my kids and I day! Thanks to all the staff for helping her!
Thank you so very much for the amazing care you you have given Fiona, and continue to give to her, Bibi and Henry. They are so blessed to have your incredible staff as their caregivers!! And thank you for continuing to share Fiona’s Story with us — it has brought incredible joy, love and insight to our lives. Sending Big Thank You’s!
Thank you for the great care you are giving Fiona. This baby hippo has captured my heart and I pray every day that she continues to thrive!
Working with premature human babies myself, there are so many similarities with baby Fiona, including premature skin, temperature regulation and feeding fortified breast milk. What an amazing city we have here in Cincinnati! Taking care of premie humans and animals, and doing it well!
Love seeing the updates on baby Fiona! Would love a live feed webcam
Wow what a story! Thank you for sharing this story with us. Fiona has won our hearts here in Tampa, Florida since day one! We can’t wait til she can be reunited! We’re sending lots of strength to the staff there!
Fiona is a house hold name for us now. We live in Missouri and all of my children have watch some part of Henry’s life unfold (Fiona’s dad). we even attended his fairwell party before he got shipped to you! Thank you for keeping us connected to Fiona. My 2 year told asks about her every day.
I saw Bibi & Henry rollicking this afternoon. Thanks for the in depth account of Fiona’s birth & all you are doing for her survival! I’m wondering how Fiona will deal with the outdoor tank later this year. It will always be oh so deep for her & from what I’ve read, hippos do not actually swim. Any input would be appreciated.
Fionas story has made a connection to Hippos many would never have had. So very grateful to watch her grow and thrive. Thank you for sharing.
Here’s to hoping you can put the baby with her momma soon! But you’re doing an amazing job caring for her. Poor momma’s hormones must be all mixed up,thinking she needs to mate so soon. Hope you get her settled too
Thank you for the details!
I was concern for Fiona’s mother, wondering if she was upset about being away from her baby.
Thank you for your excellent care!
It has become a daily ritual to check on her! My class has been following her too! We keep cheering her on! Go. Fiona Go!
Will Fiona always be attached to her caregivers? How will she relate to humans after she is returned to her hippo family?
Thanks so much for the updates..
I am just curious will mama and baby ever bond like a mother and baby or will they always have to be kept apart.
As full time residents of Florida, and former Cincinnati Zoo members, we are very proud that we had the opportunity to visit the zoo many times. Looking at the daily updates on Fiona makes us still feel connected. Thank you all for your care and concern for Fiona, and for your fans all around the world.
I live in Blachly, OR and I have so enjoyed keeping track of Fiona on Facebook. She is so adorable and you are taking such good care of her. It’s a joy to see her grow and progress. If not for you she would not be here for us to appreciate. Thank you for that. If I ever do get to Cincinnati I will definitely be coming to your zoo and to see Fiona.
It has been an inspiring joy keeping up with Fiona’s progress. It is great when a baby hippo can teach us all about never giving up.
All of my best to the faboulos staff for working around the clock to save Bibi. I so admire your tireless efforts, skill, knowledge, and strength. May Bibi continue to fight and thrive!