Funani Knows Best

BY Peggy Scott

Photography by Ken Bohn

“Sleep when the baby sleeps.”

No five words have done more to save the sanity of new moms—even those with four legs. A new bundle of joy can have a huge impact on its parents’ lifestyle, especially when Junior weighs close to 90 pounds and has the get-up-and-go of the Energizer Bunny! And as a veteran mom with 12 calves under her maternity belt, no one knows the ins and outs of the motherhood game better than Funani, the San Diego Zoo’s 33-year-old African river hippo Hippopotamus amphibius. “She is such a good mom,” says Jen Chapman, a senior keeper at the Zoo. “She tries to rest every chance she gets. If the two are napping and he wakes up, Funani does all she can to lull him back to sleep. But he’s super active.” Funani certainly has her hands—or front feet—full with this one!

Bringing Up Baby

Born early on September 22, 2017, Funani’s latest calf is named Tony in honor of Tony DiGenova, a donor who provided the Zoo with one of its largest bequests ever. This calf (her eighth here at the Zoo) has been precocious from day one. “It took Devi, the last calf, a while to come out of her shell and find her personality,” Jen says. “But this guy was looking at his keepers, completely fearless, from that first day.” Notoriously protective, Funani makes it a habit to keep herself between her baby and the rest of the world. “We let her tell us when she’s ready to show him to us,” Jen says, noting that the relationship of trust between the 3,500-pound hippo and her keepers makes their work much easier. “If she’s not stressed, everything goes much better.”

The “little” one is thriving and growing rapidly, almost doubling in weight in his first month. While that kind of growth may seem surprising, there’s at least one good reason—good nutrition, courtesy of Mom. “Funani’s milk supplies her calf with 550 calories per cup, and he nurses regularly,” Jen says. That high-quality diet seems to result in a high-energy baby hippo! But Funani has a few tricks up her sleeve for that, too. “She does her best to tire him out,” Jen explains. “She leads him on walks on the beach, and guides him into the deeper water so he’ll move more. She seems to know how long he can hold his breath—you can almost see her counting the seconds as his stamina grows.”

Funani is even helping with the calf’s eventual shift to solid food. “She’s normally a clean eater, but when it’s time for her kid to start eating food, she leaves a little bit on her face and on the floor for the baby to try,” Jen says. “He may just play with it at first, but eventually he’ll get the idea.”

Hippo See, Hippo Do

As an experienced mom, Funani seems to know it is her job to show her youngsters how to be hippos. “She takes advantage of every teachable moment,” Jen says. “She is what he wants to be, and he mimics everything she does.” That learned behavior includes interacting with keepers. “She’s starting to encourage him to interact with me, and he’s learning he needs to look to us,” Jen says. “They’re shifting on and off exhibit; he’s even targeting (touching an object with his nose). He took right to the training. After all, it must be OK if mom is doing it!”

Jen is quick to point out that Funani is just as ready to correct her headstrong calf as she is to model appropriate behavior. “He approached me in full ‘display,’” Jen recalls with a laugh. “He was snorting and being huffy—and mom scolded him on the spot!”
This “it takes a village” approach to raising offspring reflects life in the wild. “In the wild, other female hippos would help Funani watch her baby,” Jen explains. “Here at the Zoo, we keepers are her babysitters.” Trusting her keepers with her calves didn’t happen overnight. “She’s selective about who she lets near him, and it took a while to win her over. But she came around. And now that good relationship with us will transfer to him.”

And Otis Makes Three

Of course, Funani had help in making her latest calf. Otis, Funani’s 41-year-old, 4,500-pound mate, and the father of her last four calves, also lives here at the San Diego Zoo. Currently, Funani’s enthusiastic protectiveness of her offspring precludes any blending of the family’s living arrangements, so they alternate in the exhibit. Even though Otis outweighs Funani by 1,000 pounds, she clearly outranks him—and he doesn’t mind a bit. “Otis is such a sweet, laid-back guy. He exudes an absolute adoration for Funani. The honeymoon phase isn’t over with these two,” Jen says fondly, noting that the pair chit-chat and exchange nose bumps in the barn. “They are so cute together.”

Nothing comes between protective hippo mom Funani and her precious calf.

The living quarters shuffle allows the hippos to enjoy the best of both worlds. “It’s enriching for them to be out on exhibit in the big pool, seeing guests,” Jen says. “And then they get their quiet time in the back pool. Otis loves his bubble baths and playing with the hose during training sessions. We have great hippo parties back here.”

And as smitten as Otis is with Funani, Jen notes, he also respects her authority. “When it’s his turn out on exhibit alone, he does a ‘recon’ lap to make sure she’s not there. Then he knows he can run and play,” she says, adding, “What a great guy he is to put up with her attitude. His attitude is ‘happy wife, happy life’.”

Come get the big picture of their supersize, special brand of domestic bliss: Otis occupies the viewing exhibit on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; with Funani and her calf on exhibit Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays.