"Behold the hippopotamus! We laugh at how he looks to us,
And yet in moments dank and grim, I wonder how we look to him."
- Ogden Nash
"A man looking at a hippopotamus may sometimes be tempted to regard a hippopotamus as an enormous mistake."
- G. K. Chesterton
It’s been years since I’ve seen a hippo. I’m not talking about the relatively diminutive pygmy hippos, I’m talking about Hippopotamus amphibius, the aquatic behemoth of Africa, the original River Horse. In the past few years, I’ve visited many of the biggest zoos in the US – Bronx, National, Brookfield, Audubon. All used to have hippos. None do now. As far as I can tell, the last time I saw a Nile hippopotamus was 2009, at the Philadelphia Zoo.
What happened to make one of the most iconic of zoo animals such as a rarity? Some people will blame it on expense. A hippo is an expensive animal to keep for sure, and not just on account of the food bill. They need a lot of water, which they quickly make messy by defecating in it. Of course, polar bears and penguins use up a lot of water too, and they still seem to be common enough. Elephants also usually have big bathing pools, and many zoos are tripping over themselves to expand their elephant habitats. So why not hippos?
Maybe it’s the underwater angle. Since underwater viewing was first developed for hippos, many zoos have seen that as the ONLY way to exhibit them properly. Seen below the surface or at eye level, a hippo is an amazing beast. Seen from above, it’s a dark shape in a pool. You might as well get a floating pool toy and pretend that that’s the hippo. These underwater viewing exhibits are expensive, though; it takes a lot of filter power to keep them clear and clean.
Perhaps it’s a matter of competition. Elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses, and tapirs traditionally used to all be kept together in pachyderm buildings. Changes in zoo philosophy have demanded more space for large zoo mammals, and suddenly there isn’t enough room for everyone. Elephants have generally been the winners here, as most zoos are desperate to keep their elephants. Rhinos and tapirs can be incorporated into mixed species ungulate exhibits, so they’ve found refuge. But the poor hippo? Pushed out the door. At the National Zoo in Washington, DC, Indian rhinos, Nile and pygmy hippos, giraffes, and capybara used to all occupy the Elephant House. As the zoo’s needs for elephant space grew, one by one their building mates vanished. The hippo was the last to go.
Maybe there aren’t enough hippos to go around. Demographics might have become an issue, as many of the zoos that keep hippos keep either one or a same-sex pair. Not a lot of breeding going on. Even a pair may be inadequate. I’ve been lucky enough to see hippos in the wild, and you don’t see one or two or three, you see them in herds – big, loud, noisy, splashy, smelly herds. Very few US zoos keep more than two animals. Hippos are known to breed fairly well in captivity, but they aren’t being given the chance.
Hopefully more US zoos will remember the humble hippo in their collection plans. The zoos that do exhibit hippos and do it well – St. Louis, San Diego, and, of course, Toledo, to name a few – know that they can be star attractions. Unlike many large mammals, hippos are still fairly common in the wild, overpopulating in some places (to the point where culling is practiced), so more founders could be imported. They don’t require nearly as much room as elephants (also unlike elephants, there is no obsessive animal-rights fixation on hippos – the assumption seems to be that if they have a big enough pool, they’re fine…). Hippos were among my favorite zoo animals growing up. I would hate for future generations to never have the chance to see or smell one in the flesh.