HIPPO, HIPPO, HURRAY!!!
By Susana Cortázar
If you haven’t done so already, visit Zoo Miami and see our new baby pygmy hippo – Asali. Not only will you fall in love with her on the spot, but you’ll be so tempted to steal and take her home with you! Yes, she’s that adorable.
Pygmy hippos are considerably smaller than Nile hippos, which reach up to several thousand pounds when fully grown. They are solitary animals and the only long-lasting bond is that between mother and calf. Nocturnal, pygmy hippos are rare to find in the wild and unheard of outside West Africa until the 19th century. It wasn’t until the 20th century that they were brought into zoo collections. Interestingly enough, research has shown that pygmy hippos are most closely related to whales and dolphins. They secrete a substance over their bodies that looks like sweat, gives them a pinkish hue, has antiseptic and sunscreen protection, and makes them quite slippery.
Their “courting” process is quite interesting, as the two swim around in circles in the “yin yang” position for about an hour. Kim explains that, “this way, they two have visual contact at all times and aggressive or defensive behaviors can be detected. When ready, the female will bob her head in a submissive-type behavior,” and lay down on her belly to let the male know she is receptive to mate and allows him to mount her.
After mating, the female proceeds to attack the male, at which point they are separated and led to their individual pools. During mating, their keepers maintain the paddock gates open to give the hippos “an out” if they so desire.
I asked Kim how they knew Kelsey was pregnant and she told me that, “Kelsey stopped cycling, her belly and teats dropped, and the male stopped vocalizing.” Her pregnancy lasted 201 days and she, a first-time mother, gave birth to a healthy calf.
During Kelsey’s birth, one of the zoo’s vets, Dr. Christine Miller and the night keeper, Kresimir Golenja, were present. Although this was her first baby, Kelsey did almost everything correctly and was a real trooper.
“I was doing hourly rounds of Kelsey as we knew she was about ready to give birth,” says Kresimir. “Around 11:15 p.m., I noticed a little hoof sticking out under her tail. I immediately contacted Dr. Miller, who happened to be on the zoo grounds, and mentioned the situation to her. She advised she wanted to take a look to make sure Kelsey’s first birth was proceeding without complications. I went to pick her up and when we got back to Kelsey, the baby had been born and both had moved from the hay where I’d left Kelsey, to under the sprinkler that had been set up for her. The umbilical cord was still attached and Dr. Miller and I watched as the baby stood up, wobbled away from Kelsey, and the cord stretched until it broke.”
Although everything seemed to be going well, Kresimir says “there was a crucial moment when Kelsey unknowingly sat on the baby and we thought she would crush her. Dr. Miller tapped Kelsey on her rump and Kelsey stood and moved away. The baby started exhibiting some difficulty walking – her back legs seemed weak and in pain – but she recovered and was walking normally soon thereafter. Dr. Miller and I continued to watch her until about 1:30 a.m.,” says Kresimir. The next morning, the hippos’ regular keepers took over the watch and reported everything was going well. Asali was nursing, bonding with Kelsey, and has been thriving ever since, much to everyone’s delight.
Kelsey is very protective of Asali, and you will usually find them swimming, eating, or just tucked in a corner of their exhibit pool, together – again reaffirming their bond – although Asali is becoming more independent by the day and ventures out on her own more and more.
Born without teeth, hippos start growing them a few weeks after birth. Their front teeth, known as tusks, grow into about six inches of razor-sharp weapons. What are their main predators? Leopards. Kim adds that, “unfortunately, these beautiful animals are victim to loss of habitat and man – who poach them for their meat.”