Mammal of Mystery

Devi the Hippo Calf

As mysteries go, it wasn’t so much a case of “whodunnit” as “what is it?” It was pretty clear to keepers on March 23, 2015, that Funani the African river hippo had given birth to a calf. They also knew Otis, the father, had definitely played a role in the arrival. But it would be more than two months before anyone could answer, with any certainty, whether the pair had produced a son or a daughter. Funani, of course, had the information, but she wasn’t telling. Nor was the notoriously protective mother letting anyone close enough to get a good enough look. Inquiring minds—and camera phones—would have to wait.

BY kabrams

Photography by Ken Bohn

Game Changer

With the baby’s birth, hippo keepers knew that things at the hippo exhibit had just become cuter—and a bit more complicated. “The arrival of a calf changes everything,” explains John Michel, senior keeper. “With a male and female pair, the routine is for them to go on and off exhibit together. But add a calf, which must be kept separate from the father, and the situation completely changes.”

Devi is the seventh calf Funani has produced during her 20 years at the Zoo.

The youngster’s arrival turned life at the Zoo’s hippo barn into a game of musical chairs of sorts. “Otis is out on exhibit in the pool Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays,” John says. “Funani and her calf go out Tuesdays, Thursdays, and weekends.” One aspect, John notes, did not change. “Funani runs things. If she doesn’t want to shift off, she doesn’t,” he explains. “She and the calf were out in the main exhibit for about two weeks after she gave birth. Otis moved from the barn to another outdoor area and back again during that time. You don’t want to stress a mother hippo.” John adds that Otis’ personality is a big help during a change of routine. “He is a laid-back, go-with-the-flow guy,” John says. “You couldn’t ask for a more mellow fellow.”

Mom Said No

With Funani, however, “mellow” isn’t usually the first word that comes to mind. “She has always been a doting mom,” John says. “But with this calf, she’s been super protective.” One reason for her hyper-vigilance, he muses, might rest with the calf’s size. “Funani has had 7 calves here at the Zoo in 20 years,” John says. “This calf was the smallest and a little bit wobbly at first, so maybe she’s just being extra careful.” During the early days, Funani kept the calf tucked protectively under the elephant ear plant at the edge of their pool, always positioning herself between her baby and the viewing window. She would frequently nurse the baby up on the beach toward the back of the exhibit, keeping one wary eye on her adoring public. The only individuals deemed acceptable, other than her keepers? A mother mallard duck that was also raising a family in the hippo exhibit. “One afternoon, the ducklings were napping on Funani’s back, which was the only part of her showing above the surface of the pool,” John recalls. “It was quite a sight.”

Funani’s sensitivity, combined with her species’ natural behaviors, made the gender guessing game even more challenging. A water-loving creature, the hippo’s habit of spending up to 16 hours a day submerged earned it its name, a Greek word that means “river horse.” Well, you may be able to lead a horse to water, but you can’t make a river horse show you its calf! By the time keepers started looking for “clues,” the calf was already able to push up to the surface of the pool. This meant the chance for a good look as Funani nudged the baby upward against the exhibit window had already passed them by. “It was pretty funny to see us trying to get a peek,” John recalls. “There we were, crouched along the glass with our cellphone cameras, trying to get a definitive photo.” And as senior keeper Jen Chapman noted in a blog about Funani’s baby, sometimes nature works against you. Those wrinkles in a baby hippo’s skin? Yes, they’re adorable—but they can also “often hide certain characteristics we are looking for in determining gender!” she wrote.

It’s a Girl—and an Honor

Once “Bellywatch 2015” finally paid off, the calf was at last determined to be female. Picking a suitable name was the next step. The hippo crew had wanted to pay tribute to David Smith, a much-beloved fellow keeper, but when the calf turned out to be a girl, his coworkers researched the feminized version of his name: Devi. The name fits in more ways than one. “Devi also means ‘goddess’ in Hindi, which is very fitting— since many of us were kneeling in front of the viewing glass, as if genuflecting, while we’d try to get a glimpse of her belly!” Jen wrote.

Funani and Otis have a close, yet slightly complicated, relationship. She likes to be the boss!

These days, Devi has grown into her own and filled out nicely. She follows her mother around and willingly approaches her keepers. Funani has relaxed a bit, but she still tries to stay in front of Devi and guide her. Mother and daughter are interacting with their neighbors, the okapis and duikers, and Devi’s confidence grows each day—along with her personality. Jen calls the connection Devi has with her mom “amazing,” and the little one is developing into a well-rounded hippo—in every sense of the word!

There’s a new routine at the hippo barn these days, one that brings smiles to the keepers’ faces. “We open the gate for Funani and Devi to come in and here they are, trotting toward us, looking like the Clydesdale and the Chihuahua,” John says. “How could it be cuter?”