Hippo Birth: A Private Event

There were only four keepers present when Funani, the San Diego Zoo’s resident female river hippo, gave birth to her newest calf in the pool of her exhibit. I was one of those keepers—and it is a moment I will never forget!

As the birthing window approached, we began watching for physical changes in Funani and noting her interactions with Otis, the male river hippo. A couple of weeks ago, we began to see some changes: Funani was starting to push Otis away, signaling to us it was time to separate them.

We set up Otis’s ‘bachelor pad’ in the back pool and barn area. It’s equipped with a water-misting system above the pool for the warmer days, and he gets lots of attention from keepers and special behind-the-scenes tours in this area!

Funani continued to show signs of an impending birth. A week prior to delivery, we noted another marker: Funani had developed the large udder that would hold the 500-calorie-per-cup milk for her calf. Then, on March 22, a very important and exciting change occurred!

Funani wasn’t as hungry as normal that morning, leaving much of her breakfast uneaten. She seemed uncomfortable—not “in labor” uncomfortable, but restless. I talked to her and sprayed her lightly with the hose (one of her favorite enrichment items!). All these efforts seemed to help. Her restlessness eased for a while, allowing me to clean the beach area while our water quality staff vacuumed the pool. We both did a meticulous job, as we predicted we might not have the opportunity to do so again for a few days.

At 9 a.m., I opened the door to let Funani into the exhibit. Normally, she slowly walks into the area, takes a big drink from the shallow end of the pool before wading in to sit on the large rock in the center, and eventually does her “morning laps”along the pool bottom. On this day however, she ran out, went straight into the pool and began running laps. It was pretty clear that she was getting extremely close to going into labor. I checked on her all day long, as did other keepers, veterinary staff, and supervisors— and each time she was running laps. At the end of my shift, I checked on her one last time. As she surfaced, I said goodnight and asked,her to please wait until I came back in the morning. The lead keeper of the area had arranged to have supervisors, late keepers, and security do spot checks and to contact us if she showed signs of labor. Funani kept doing laps.

When I got to the exhibit on Monday at 5:45 a.m., it  still dark but thanks to underwater lights, I could see Funani in the shallow of the pool…in obvious labor! I called the lead keeper, and he and two other keepers headed over quickly. By the time they arrived, I had witnessed three contractions. While I was updating them, we saw the calf’s feet emerge. I ran to the back fence, knowing that once Funani gave birth she would push the calf to the shallowest spot for its first breath offering the best view to assess the calf. I barely made it in time. At 6:26 a.m., I saw the calf’s wiggling ears and heard the first breath, followed by snorting as the little one cleared its airways. My heart melted.

The most amazing part of this experience has been watching Funani. She is an excellent mom: protective, nurturing, and taking advantage of every teachable moment. She offers the calf abundant nursing opportunities and the little one gets stronger with each sip. It will be about three to five days before she and the calf are comfortable enough to come into the barn while keepers are present. They have access to the barn at all times with a bounty of food waiting when Funani is ready. Once she and the calf are reliably and comfortably shifting into the barn, we will begin rotating them and Otis on exhibit. This is journey has truly just begun! We are all looking forward to the moment Funani pushes the calf up to the window at just the right angle so we can determine whether it is a boy or girl, and to watching her do what she does best, being an incredible mother.

Jennifer Chapman is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Okapi: Early Arrival.