To say that raising Fiona has been a challenge may qualify as the understatement of the year. We knew full well that hand-raising a premature hippo baby would be a difficult undertaking, but the actual experience is even more of a rollercoaster than we could imagine. In just the 1 month that she has been with us, every member of our team has been tested professionally and emotionally, but Fiona, thankfully, is still alive.
Maintaining appropriate body temperature was among the very first challenges we faced with Fiona. With little information available on preemie hippos, we weren’t even sure what a normal body temperature might be.We knew that being too cold would be fatal, and we noticed that she would start producing the hippo’s trademark “bloodsweat” to
cool herself down if her temperature got above 100°F. So we aimed for a body temperature somewhere in the range of 97°-100°F which is typical for most large mammals. Fortunately for us, one of the innermost rooms of the hippo building is situated just above the boiler and was capable of maintaining air temperatures of up to 90°F, plus had the added benefit of being close enough to mom and dad (“Bibi” and “Henry”) that Fiona would still be able to hear and smell them around the clock. The newly chosen hippo “nursery” is at times sweltering for the care staff, but serves as a perfect incubator for our little “undercooked” hippo until she is stable enough to be moved to more permanent housing right next to mom and dad.
In the wild, hippos spend up to 16 hours a day in the water, but Fiona is not yet strong enough to be kept in a pool for extended periods of time and the amount of daily medical care she requires also makes the pool an impractical choice. Since Fiona is spending significantly less time in the water, maintaining her skin’s moisture in her warm nursery presents another challenge. The solution: our care team applies a diluted baby lotion all over her body every hour just to keep her skin from drying out and cracking. Though it is a relatively constant concern, this is easily one of the more enjoyable tasks for the care team and also provides for a unique bonding experience between the baby hippo and her many caretakers. Though we love to provide Fiona’s almost hourly lotion massages, we hope the need for them will diminish as her health improves and she begins spending more and more time in the water.
The most significant hurdle by far has been feeding our preemie. With the ability to milk Bibi, we did have a leg up in that we had mother’s milk available to us. However Bibi was not producing nearly enough milk to support the growing baby and we had to come up with a synthetic formula quickly. Though there are various specialized pre-made formulas available to the zoo community, a hippopotamus formula does not exist. Fortunately, we were able to send some of Bibi’s milk off to the National Zoo’s milk repository for analysis to determine the exact nutritional components and then we were able to tailor our own formula to match. But even with the right composition, we encountered problems when Fiona’s underdeveloped digestive tract seemed unable to process the very rich formula. Vet staff and our zoo’s nutritionist worked together, tweaking and adjusting the formula at each feeding, trying to find the perfect balance that would allow for sound digestion but also meet Fiona’s caloric needs. Though we’ve made significant progress with this obstacle, it continues to be a recurring challenge as Fiona’s health changes from day to day.
Aside from developing the perfect formula, the method of delivery was yet another hardship. Initially, Fiona was not even strong enough to nurse. All of her nutrition had to be delivered directly into her stomach via tube feedings multiple times a day. Eventually, Fiona gained some strength and energy, began nursing from a bottle and was finally consuming enough formula on her own that we were able to completely discontinue the tube feedings. Fiona was gaining weight and making forward progress and then the teething started. Fiona began struggling during feed times and was biting and chewing on everything she could fit her mouth around. We could see her tiny tusks erupting from underneath her gums, obviously causing discomfort. Her nursing response began to diminish and all but disappeared within 72 hours in spite of pain medications, teething toys and frequent gum massages. Teething should not have even been an issue at this stage of the game as most hippos do not get their first set of teeth until several months after birth. But Fiona continues to ignore the instruction manual Mother Nature has written and prefers to move on her own timeline. Unfortunately, that meant that we were back to tube feedings around the clock and Fiona’s little body had become dehydrated in the process. She had grown increasingly lethargic and unresponsive and her blood work revealed that her kidneys had been negatively impacted as well. Fiona was headed downhill quickly and we would have to come up with a solution fast if we were going to save her.
The most effective way to address the dehydration was by placing an IV catheter so that we could deliver life-saving fluids directly into Fiona’s bloodstream. However preemie babies have very tiny and unstable veins, and even though our veterinary team was able to get multiple IVs placed, the vein would soon rupture or blow, rendering the IV useless. With time working against us, we reached out to the Cincinnati Children’s. The nationally renowned Vascular Access Team came to the zoo and expertly helped us to place a life-saving, longer IV catheter called a midline, using ultrasound guidance. The catheter was fitted to a special pump to help regulate and monitor the delivery of fluids. Vet staff stayed with our fragile little hippo around the clock for the next 48 hours to monitor the valuable IV. Drip by drip, Fiona slowly but surely began to show promising signs of recovery and to everyone’s relief, began bottle feeding again!
As of this blog post, Fiona is slowly inching her way back to health and the care team is recovering emotionally from this most recent scare. With every obstacle overcome, it seems another has revealed itself to further test the limits of our abilities. But regardless of the challenges that may arise, we will continue to do everything in our power to give Fiona the best chance possible for as long as it takes. Many of Fiona’s loving fan base have asked when our little lady will be out of the woods, but the answer to that question is both complex and varying. For now, we take it day by day and hope for more good days than bad. We will continue to update everyone on her progress moving forward and we thank you all so very much for the astronomical love and support you’ve shown us so far. #TeamFiona!
67 thoughts on “Hippo Baby Blog #2: The Many Challenges of Raising a Preemie Hippo”
hugs to you all and to her– thank you for also reaching out to those at Children’s who could help!
You guys are amazing! Hoping and praying that the biggest thing Fiona ignores in mother natures manual is surving and thriving after being born 6 weeks early!
Thank you for the good care to Fiona. Keep on fighting Fiona. We love you. ❤
Your staff is amazing! Fiona’s Angels. We a praying for her to grow and get stronger so we can come see her this summer
Thank you for taking care of this tiny, precious baby. I know you are working so hard to keep her going.
God bless you all for trying your best to keep Fiona alive. We made a contribution to her medical care. It wasn’t much but but this little girl and her story have become so important to our family. I’m proud of our Cincinnati zoo and the work they do. Thankyou! We love you Fiona!
The work done with Fiona is just amazing to keep her alive and to bring Fiona this far from birth especially being born six weeks early.
Best of luck to Fiona.
Thanks to the Cincinnati Zoo staff for all the work that you have done with Fiona.
Your dedication is remarkable and we are proud of our zoo and grateful to all of you. Continued prayers for this special little girl…and You
Thank you for all of your hard work and also for providing all of us these updates! I’m so proud of this team and our zoo!
Oh my, as in love as I am with this amazing baby girl, I can’t even imagine the emotional roller coaster this is for her caregivers. I will be visiting in early May, and hope and pray I get to meet this beautiful survivor and her angel team!
God speed to the entire staff….You are truly awesome and appreciated….Fiona couldn’t have been born Ina better zoo.
Thank you so much for the update. I love reading about baby Fiona! 🙂
This is an amazing but scary journey. Thank you, all staff involved, for your amazing care and consistent efforts to move her along to a healthier state. More prayers rising.
Thank you for sharing! Your Team is amazing and truly an inspiration. Grow strong and beat this Baby Fiona!
I hope everyone on staff and all your partners at Cincinnati Children’s and elsewhere no how much their hard work and fast thinking means to all of us who care so much about Fiona. You guys are doing amazing work. Keep it up! <3
I look for the updates everyday as I feel like I am experiencing your ups and downs and the same emotions as the caretakers are.
In my prayers and support to the staff and prayers for Fiona. Now I need a baby hippo.
You are awesome! Keeping Fiona and the staff in my thoughts and prayers. Thank you so much for taking the time to keep us updated!
I can’t begin to thank you enough for the daily updates on Fiona. She has quickly become an immediate daily search to check on her well being. The Cincinnati Zoo is commended for their fine work. All of YOU are HEROES! Thank YOU!!
You guys are truly amazing. Keep up the good work and I pray for you and Fiona everyday. Please give her a hug for me. I just wish I could do it myself. I love that little hippo and Team Fiona for everything you are doing.
My wife have been following Fiona’s journey from the start. Many thanks to the staff there, and may they know just how appreciated their efforts are.
Thank you so much for providing such wonderful care of this precious little hippo, Fiona. We look forward to your updates everyday. It is amazing how important Fiona has become to us, and we can’t begin to tell you how much we appreciate what you do.
I am so impressed at the level of professional on the part of everyone who is caring for precious Fiona. Thank you for your hard work!
I just read your article.You are absolutely all amazing…the medical care,the hours with the baby,the physical touch/bonding that is so needed,every aspect of her-“being”-here in your very capable,skilled hands,That Love you are giving her with touch and soft words…that emotional attachment is I suspect something Fiona feels deep in her little heart.The followers on the Internet,me included,all love this little hippo,we all are praying for her to get strong and grow and thrive and survive,..and God,above,is overseeing all of this,My prayers and thoughts are with you all and with baby Fiona.Come on little girl,you have a whole lot of people watching you,praying for you and loving you..we all want you to have a long ,long life.
I am so in awe of all of you for your care and diligence with Fiona! It’s so great that there are so many awesome resources available and I cannot commend your care team enough. I worked at veterinary hospitals for over 10 years and I realize how intense the process can be physically, but especially emotionally. It is a triumph for your team to have done such unprecedented work! Please tell them how deeply valued they are and how much we all appreciate their hard work and sacrifices!! THANK YOU!!!!!!
Thank you all for your untiring efforts and for your dedication to this precious baby. We are so fortunate to have such an outstanding zoo with such dedicated and capable professionals who are fearlessly working to give this little one a chance at a healthy life. Prayers for you and that adorable little girl.
Thank you so much for the update. Thank you all for your hard work and dedication to baby Fiona. Sending positive thoughts to your team and Fiona!
Bless all of you for taking such good care of this precious baby. I’m sure it has been a real roller coaster ride for everyone involved.
We continue to pray and give towards helping Fiona survive and thrive. We are so proud and honored to see the two-leggeds sacrifice so much to help this sweet girl. We ask the spirit of the hippo to help her re-join her mother, that her mother accepts her and she can again take her place in the sacred circle with her relatives.
Creativity, Science, Compassion: when they come together, awesome things happen. Fiona is one lucky little hippo (because a little luck thrown in doesn’t hurt!)
With all you have going on taking care of Fiona..I (we) truly appreciate you keeping us in the ‘loop’. I think she’s the only reason I check my phone anymore! With so much nonsense going on in the world…you all have restored my faith in humanity. Thank you for fighting for her and continuing to fight for her. Sweet little Fiona…we’d all like to be able to breathe again some day…so if you could please drink your bottle and grow up to do hippo things…that would be great 🙂 xoxo
I read that you are applying lotion to Fiona’s skin to keep it from drying out. Lotions have alcohol in them and are extremely drying to the skin. A CREAM, VASELINE or OIL would be much better for her skin. Please consult a dermatologist.
Thank you to TeamFiona and the Cincinnati Zoo. I follow your updates and blogs everyday. Your capability, dedication & creativity in keeping this adorable little one with us is awe inspiring. There was a reason that Fiona was born at this particular zoo and you are all part of it. Intellectually I know how hard this must be physically and emotionally on the team but the two blogs really helped me to understand just what you all are going through. Prayers and positive energy to all of you and Fiona.
Hang in there folks. One day that baby will be thanking you
Take care of that little one. She has a purpose in this world
I am so glad that she is doing better. I check for updates every day!
Bless each of you for your dedication and love of this precious baby hippo. Thanks for sharing your talents and knowledge to save her.
You all are doing such a great job! Thank you so much for your continued care & all the resources you are using. Cincinnati is the best! Can’t wait to see her lead a normal hippo life. Really appreciate the daily updates. Go Fiona, stay strong! Go care team, you’re the best!! ❤
So thankful to have such wonderful dedicated staff to care for Fiona. She is in wonderful hands. I saw that someone posted about alcohol in baby lotion. I don’t know about that. But what about a natural oil like “Coconut oil”. Seems like everywhere I look there is a remedy and reason to use it. Keep up the great job. Everyone is lucky to have you there. Especially Fiona.
Wow, this has just been an amazing and sometimes sad journey. Each time I see a new post I keep my fingers crossed, hoping for only the best of news. Thank you to each and every caregiver and Cincinnati Zoo for your round-the-clock monitoring, messages, feeding and overall specialized care. A special thank you is also in order for Cincinnati Childrens VAT team for their time and expertise given to this baby. Her recovery may not be possible without the help you have provided. You are the best !!!!
I have been following Fiona since her birth, & like others, check on her status every day and have shared your updates with my family across the country. We ALL want to thank the staff who are taking care of Fiona for their compassion and steadfast determination in giving her the best chance of getting through this tough road. Your efforts are not done in vain.This gives many of us a “window” to your world and the needs of such a beautiful animal that we normally would not have. Thank you and know that Fiona has many guardian angels!
God Bless Fiona & all the staff that are working so hard to get Fiona feeling better and on the road to being a very happy, healthy Hippo. Our thoughts are with you.
The stellar care from the Cincinnati Zoo nursery staff and experts from Cincinnati Childrens is to be commended. This is truly a groundbreaking effort to enhance the survival of this species. I look forward to daily Fiona updates and hope that she meet these many challenges of prematurity. Sending love and light to all of you.
Thank you Team Fiona and the wonderful VAT at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital for all of the loving care you have given this precious baby hippo! And thank you for the update on her care and daily struggles and progress. She is a fighter and I feel positive that she is going to gain strength and pull through this! Keep fighting Fiona stay strong, God bless you and your awesome Team. Prayers to all!! ❤❤️
Sweet baby Fiona. She acts just like a human premie. I am a neonatal nurse and see this all the time. Fingers crossed for you Fiona. Take your time and improve each day .
You all are doing an exceptional job taking care of Fiona. Obviously these have been trying times but we’re all rooting for Fiona and you all. Thank you for doing all you can.
Thank you for your posts and updates while struggling to overcome the hurdles in Fiona’s care. Please let the public know what more we can do. I have made my donation, but would like to do more.
This little lady has become such a symbol of hope and the vet staff is an amazing group of dedicated people delivering the best medical attention to her! I am always proud to be a Cincinnati girl, but this story, and the passion behind raising a baby hippo, makes me even prouder of this great city. Hang in there care givers. As a mom of a very early preemie I know how tough it is… but our NICU wasn’t 90 degrees… so drink your Gatorade and rest when you can… know we are all praying for all of you.
Thank you for all of your love and support you are giving this beautiful little life. Thank you for never giving up on her and thinking outside of the box. I continue to keep all of you and precious Fiona in my prayers. I have many angels in heaven praying for her too. She has the best chance at survival by being in your care.
I Love You Fiona
What a wonderful team you are! Best wishes for Fiona that she will continue to feed and gain strength.
Have you thought about raising the humidity in the room to help keep her skin moist?