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Monday, December 19, 2016

River Horse Renaissance

"I have seen the hippopotamus, both asleep and awake; and I can assure you that, awake or asleep, he is the ugliest of the works of God."

- Thomas Babington Macaulay

Without knowing anything else about him, I've decided Thomas Babington Macaulay was a jerk.

Both for work and for pleasure, I visit many zoos and aquariums.  On an average year I visit about ten institutions, whether its traveling for a conference, going to pick up or drop off an animal, or just out on vacation.  A few years back, I'd visited three zoos in a row for work, and at each had a keeper point out to me, "That used to be the hippo exhibit."  It was after the third zoo that it had hit me - I hadn't seen a hippopotamus is almost a decade.

The gradual disappearance of hippos from American zoo collections was the subject of one of my first blog posts.  It affected me more so than it would your average visitor, because hippos have always ranked high on the list of my favorite animals.  In a career spent with zoos and aquariums, however, having worked with species as varied as tigers and rhinos to sharks and salamanders, I have never worked with hippos.  Nor have I ever encountered on behind-the-scenes.  Watching as hippos disappeared from more and more zoos, I began to suspect I never would.

I tried playing the academic and came up with various theories as to why the hippos were disappearing.  Competition with elephants... expensive of filtration... underwater viewing... non-endangered status... lack of public interest.  All seemed plausible enough.  But none explain what I'm seeing now.

The hippos are coming back.  In a big way.

This summer, Cincinnati Zoo unveiled it's 7.5 MILLION dollar Hippo Cove, completing its African trail with a new habitat featuring underwater viewing of the giant mammals.  The Memphis Zoo, which has a long and proud history of breeding hippos, just opened Zambezi River Hippo Camp, where two hippo exhibits can be seen along a trail that also features Nile crocodiles, lesser flamingos, okapis, patas monkeys, and more.  Next year, the Dallas Zoo hopes to unveil its $13.5 million dollar (yes, almost twice as much as Cincinnati) Simmons Hippo Outpost, a 3.5 acre exhibit - that's the kind of space and money that it would have been absurd to think of being spent on hippos a few years ago.  Fresno Zoo has announced a new hippo habitat, and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is announcing that they will be replacing and expanding their hippo exhibit, instead of simply shipping the beasts out, which was the trend a few years ago.

What explains the comeback?  I have no idea.  It's long been noted that zoos are faddish - when an exhibit becomes popular at one facility, it tends to be copied quickly.  Lorikeet aviaries, naked mole rat colonies, stingray touch tanks, penguin parades...  But the thing is, hippos are hardly a "new" thing.

Zoos that have exhibits that highlight hippos - especially their underwater antics - have long known that they can be immensely popular animals.  When I broke my hippo-drought, it was at the Toledo Zoo, the first zoo to exhibit hippos with underwater viewing, which in many ways put the zoo on the map (literally, too, in a sense - the zoo's street address is on Hippo Way).  Underwater viewing allows visitors to get inches away from an animal that can dwarf a pickup truck - an experience that you aren't likely to get at a rhino or elephant exhibit.  And watching something that big twirl underwater in such a seemingly weightless fashion is incredible.

While poking around and getting some stats for this post, I did make one special discovery.  Los Angeles Zoo is now offering hippo encounters, where visitors can (for a fee) get extra close and personal to the zoo's hippos.  So if you'll excuse me, I'm off to Expedia.  When I get back, I'm sure I can cook up some fancy hippo exhibit blueprints to show my director. 

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