Neighborhood Watch, Hippo Style

The San Diego Zoo’s youngest river hippopotamus, Tony—aka Mr. T—is getting close to celebrating his first birthday.  Over the past 11 months keepers, visitors and social media fans have watched Mr T’s transformation from the tiny calf clinging close to mom Funani into the curious juvenile who is looking past his mom to the world around him…and more recently his long-legged neighbors.

The zoo’s river hippo habitat shares a fence line with another African species, the okapi. Lately, Tony has been quite interested in the okapi and is often spotted interacting with them along that fence. The okapi also seem interested in getting to know their neighbor; they often move across their habitat towards the curious calf who may be calling to them in a frequency that is too low for humans to hear.  During these interactions Funani continues to do her motherly duty, keeping an eye on Mr T to ensure he doesn’t get into trouble, but shows no interest in her neighbors.

“Hello, neighbor!”

Sometimes, the okapi will all of a sudden turn and trot away then Tony stretches up lifting his front legs, almost like he’s going to climb the fence until “Momma Fu” vocalizes and he stops.  Funani has successfully raised five other calves in this habitat so these interactions are not new to her, just part of the learning process.  Regardless of how blasé Funani’s reaction is to these moments, they never get old for those of us who have seen them with previous calves.

There is something so mesmerizing about watching the youngsters make that change from focusing on mom towards the big world beyond her.  That change signifies Funani has done her job of teaching her calf the basics; how to maneuver through the water, push up for a breath in the deep areas, as well as what food to eat and where to get it (not just milk from her). With Tony’s graduation from ‘Hippo Survival 101’, class is now in session on ‘How to Be a Successful Hippo Bloat Member’ (a group of hippos has several names including bloat, pod, or herd). Mr. T’s future bloat will not include Funani, so these lessons are just as important as survival but often subtle enough that observers have a tough time spotting them.

But make no mistake, Tony is being taught by one of the most skilled teachers around and I have no doubt he will be well prepared when it’s time for him to leave Funani and his current neighborhood to join his next bloat.

Jennifer Chapman is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous blog, Little Devi’s Big Move.