Fiona is accompained from 5:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. by a rotating group of 25 people.
The Enquirer/Meg Vogel
CINCINNATI — Fiona, the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens’ sweet-faced premature hippo calf, is an undeniable Internet darling.
She is also stubborn, slimy and sometimes uses her pool as a toilet.
Her keepers, also known as Team Fiona, have sweat, shed tears and suffered more than a few bruises on the roller coaster that was her first three months. In between all that, they’ve done a whole lot of cleaning.
They sum it up as the experience of a lifetime.
The shaky start
Christina Gorsuch, curator of mammals and “coach” of Team Fiona, was among the first people to arrive at the zoo after watching Bibi, a 3,200-pound Nile hippopotamus who came in June from St. Louis Zoo, give birth to Fiona on camera. That was at 2:58 a.m. ET Jan 24, six weeks earlier than the baby hippo was supposed to come into the world.
Yet into it she came — with eyes like Bibi’s and coloration like her father, 3,500-pound Henry, who arrived in June from Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Mo.
“I was amazed she was alive,” Gorsuch said.
First, Fiona was so small, just 29 pounds. Before she became an outlier, recorded birth weights for baby hippos ranged from 55 to 120 pounds.
Even worse, she couldn’t nurse. Zoo staff knew they had to step in.
Africa keeper Jenna Wingate recalls her first glimpse of Fiona.
“She didn’t look real,” Wingate said.
No one in the room had laid eyes on a premature baby hippo before, and part of that illusion was Fiona’s feet. Hippos have four hooved nails, but at birth Fiona’s were soft, almost gelatinous, and white.
“They looked almost pickled,” Africa keeper Wendy Rice said.
Normally, two people from the six-person Africa staff would be designated as primary caretakers for the new addition. But with Fiona’s need for round-the-clock care, the roster expanded quickly.
Team Fiona grew to 25 people, including veterinarians, Africa staff and others. One African keeper, Teresa Truesdale, stayed with her every single night, without a night off, for five weeks.
They all had a job to do, one that very few people on the planet will ever experience: To serve as surrogate parents for a calf of a species that’s been called Africa’s most dangerous animal.
“One of her first nicknames was ‘Little Spoon’ because all we did was spoon with her,” Rice said.
As appealing as snuggling with a little hippo sounds — and was — those early days were emotionally draining. During that first week, every day was a question mark.
Even as time went on, the keepers felt like they no sooner would solve one health issue than another would pop up.
“There were at least three major hurdles that she got over that we weren’t sure,” Gorsuch said. “She tried to die on us a couple of times. Everyone did a great job, but it really wore us down.”
Early on, the keepers tried to keep their emotional distance. But the physical closeness made that a tall order.
“I started building an emotional wall between me and the baby,” Rice said. “But then you start taking care of her 24/7. It’s impossible not to get attached.
“I cried on the way home a lot,” she said. “It’s the most emotionally exhausting thing I’ve ever been through.”
Disconnecting, even for a while, was tough. When her keepers weren’t at work, they often would watch her on video.
“You try to force yourself to have some work-life balance, but it’s hard because you’re so emotionally invested,” Rice said.
Team members faced physical demands, too, such as the sweating: In the area where Fiona spent her first days, the room was hot. Because she couldn’t regulate her own body temperature, her caregivers had to keep the ambient temperature at the desired 98 degrees.
And a baby hippo — with her dense, compact body — can easily injure her human companions accidentally.
“She’s like a little tank,” Rice said. “We all have bruises on our legs. Fiona’s weight now is just shy of 200 pounds.
“She does a head-tossing thing that hippos do,” Rice said. “We’ve all learned to keep our heads back. You only have to get hit in the head once.”
Wingate learned to keep her pinky toes out of the way, too.
Adding to the complexities of Fiona’s care is its public nature.
“It’s a difficult line to walk of wanting to be positive and wanting to be realistic,” Gorsuch said.
Fiona has more than 500,000 fans on Facebook alone. Her most popular Facebook post had a reach of 32 million with 574,000 likes, 167,000 shares and 117,000 comments.
Plus she’s gotten stacks and stacks of fan mail. People have made scrapbooks. Mothers of premies reached out with their stories.
One mother got her son to give up his pacifier by telling him they’d send it to Fiona.
The public support helped with the emotional load, according to Fiona’s caregivers.
Tears over a tough day would often change to tears of gratefulness for all that love. Rice read social media comments to Fiona, asking the hippo, “Do you see how many people say you need to make it?”
They’re not quite sure when they started to feel certain she would.
For Wingate, it was after nothing bad happened for two straight weeks.
Gorsuch breathed a sigh of relief the first time she saw Fiona get in her big blue pool and “porpoise” around like a normal hippo.
These days, Fiona spends nights by herself.
A keeper arrives at 5:30 a.m. Fiona is usually sleeping, which she does about 16 hours a day, in the pool.
When someone comes into the building, she’ll move to the edge of the pool to smell them. She’s particularly fond of one particular smell.
“When people come up with coffee breath, she loves it,” Rice said. “Maybe she’s just built that association with us staying up all hours drinking coffee.”
In any case, the first order of business is a weigh-in, followed by a feeding, the first of four each day. Her caregiver prepares a 2.85-liter bottle of formula, warmed to exactly 100 degrees.
If it’s too hot or too cold, Fiona won’t drink it. Fiona often uses their feet as a pillow while they work.
She’s usually pretty active after that, walking around, playing and getting in her exercise pool. And when she has to urinate or defecate, she does, even if she’s in the pool.
Her caregivers remove the solids with a skimmer.
When she’s not in the pool, her body produces what’s called “blood sweat,” a mucus-like substance that her keepers describe as a sunscreen, bug repellent, coolant and antiseptic. Sometimes it stains their clothes.
They use washcloths to clean her thick skin, which they say feels like a wet or slimy avocado.
Cleaning has been a constant in Fiona’s ever-changing world. Everything she touches has to be disinfected.
Keepers have to wash their hands, change their clothes and take their shoes off when they come into contact with her.
“When you bring your clothes home, they reek,” Rice said.
“Because you’re literally sitting in hippo poop,” Wingate said.
Little hippo, big personality
Still, when she gets the hiccups, decides to run or lets the hose run into her mouth, some of her keepers’ favorite Fiona moments, it’s all worth it.
“She’s ridiculously cute,” Gorsuch said. “I’m a very jaded animal person, and the first time I saw her, I was like, ‘That’s ridiculous.’ It makes tears well up in your eyes how cute she is.
“Zookeepers can get kind of jaded,” she said. “You’re around amazing animals all day. There is no threshold for Fiona.”
“We all still gawk over her every time,” Wingate said in agreement.
And they say she has a big personality, too. Like her mother, Bibi, she’s sassy, sometimes even stubborn.
“You cannot make her do anything she doesn’t want to do,” Gorsuch said.
Because zookeepers can’t provide discipline the way a mother hippo could, they treat her more like she’s a human toddler.
If she won’t follow them, they’ll act like they’re leaving the room. And like a toddler, she’ll come running.
On the other hand, like her dad, Henry, she’s affectionate, always wanting to be in contact with someone. For now, that’s her caregivers.
But like mothers, they know they’ll soon have to let Fiona go. They’ve already stepped back from their nightly vigils and snuggle sessions — “way harder for the care team than it was for Fiona,” Rice said.
But someday, when she’s big enough for contact to be safe, they’ll introduce her to Henry and Bibi and will cease direct contact with her altogether.
“I think it’s going to be really hard,” Wingate said.
And yet, as hard as stepping away will be, they recognize that the opportunity to care for an animal like Fiona likely will not come again soon, if ever.
“She was napping on my lap once, and I thought, ‘What if this is as good as my life gets?’ ” Rice said.
“I always tell people how magical she is,” Rice said. “I honestly think we could have a unicorn in the holding space next to her and I don’t think I would bat an eye.”
Follow Shauna Steigerwald on Twitter: @shaunaincincy
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