Sunday, December 31, 2017

A fond farewell to our favorite Australian

As 2017 draws to a close, the end of the year has brought us news of another loss. Aussie, father and grandfather of so many American cubs, has died at his home at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, just two days before Christmas.

Aussie with Anana, a few years ago
 At the age of 32 and a half, he was the oldest male polar bear in a North American zoo. He suffered from the ailments of old age, arthritis and other degenerative diseases that required treatment with painkillers. His health had deteriorated to the point that his caretakers thought it was best to euthanize him, to end his suffering.

Aussie relaxes in the grassy meadow of Great Bear Wilderness
 He was quite a character, sometimes gentle, but sometimes bossy. He and his mate Arki got along well enough to produce a good number of cubs over the years. He was beloved by his many visitors, who came to know him well over the years.

Aussie stands lookout
 Aussie was born on June 20, 1985, in Adelaide, Australia, and thus celebrated a rare summer birthday. His original name was BIAZ, for Born in Adelaide Zoo, but when he arrived at Brookfield at about the age of a 18 months, he quickly was nicknamed Aussie, because of his birthplace. And that became his name.

 At the end of 1986, Aussie joined young polar bear Arki, only six months younger than Aussie, at Brookfield Zoo. Arki had been born at the zoo, and her mother Trisha had died only a few months before Aussie's arrival. 1986 had been a tragic year, with the loss of three female polar bears, including Tricia and her daughter Penny, from unrelated causes.

Brookfield Zoo wanted to rebuild its breeding program, and Aussie would play his part.

Aussie loved his naps

Over the years, Aussie and Arki became parents to Marty in 1996, Tiguak in 1999, Kinepak in 2000, Payton in 2003, and Hudson in 2006. Today, Marty lives in Toledo, Payton lives in Memphis and Hudson still lives at Brookfield. Tiguak and Kinepak grew up, but died in other zoos, sadly.

I visited Aussie several times, and the photos above are mine. However, my dear friend Kim Pruim is a devoted and frequent visitor of Brookfield, and kindly provided the photos below, taken over the years.

Aussie in the old Bear Grotto at Brookfield - photo by Kim Pruim

The outmoded bear grottoes at Brookfield were closed and the polar bears moved to the spacious and lush Great Bear Wilderness in 2010, where the bears enjoyed open spaces, grassy meadows, pools, waterfalls, and privacy if they so desired.

Aussie - photo by Kim Pruim

Arki retired from motherhood and moved to the Louisville Zoo in 2011, and that left just Aussie and Hudson. Then Female Anana joined them for a time, while her habitat in Buffalo was being rebuilt.  Aussie and Anana had a complicated relationship, not always seeing eye to eye. 

Aussie at his 30th birthday party - photo by Kim Pruim

Of their cubs, only Marty has produced offspring, but he has been prolific, making Aussie a grandfather to Aurora and Anana, Nikita, Siku, Suka and Sakari, and Hope. Aurora has produced three cubs in the Columbus Zoo: Nora, Nuniq and Neva, and Anana has produced one cub, Amelia Gray.

Thoughtful Aussie - photo by Kim Pruim

While it is wonderful that Aussie is responsible for so many cubs, one has to wonder where the mates will be for these bears, since most of the cubs under the age of 10 in this country come from Aussie and Arki. Only Luna and the two Alaskan cubs, Qannik and Kali, are not related to each other.

Enrichment - photo by Kim Pruim

Recently Nan, who is mother to one of Marty's cubs, came to Brookfield as a mate for Hudson. Aussie and Nan got along fairly well.

Aussie chases Nan, just this past May - Photo by Kim Pruim

My friend Kim has known Aussie since she was a baby. She visited Aussie often, and in the past few years, each time wondered if it would be the last time she would see him. She and another friend visited Aussie the day before he left us, not realizing the end was so near.

Aussie sneers - photo by Kim Pruim

Kim writes, "Aussie has been a part of my life since 1996, when I was a year old. When I met his last offspring Hudson for the first time in 2008, that's when I really began to appreciate Aussie (as well as other polar bears) more. Through the years, I have made many visits to the Brookfield Zoo to visit Aussie and to photograph him.

"A highlight for me was the one and only time I got to see him behind the scenes, back in 2012. I shared a brief one-on-one moment with him. I quietly called his name as I knelt down next to the mesh, and we looked into each others eyes. That was a sweet moment I'll never forget.

"With no knowledge of his arthritis worsening, I managed to see him the day before he was euthanized. Though it made his passing harder for me, I feel very lucky that is was among the last of his visitors. He was my favorite old man and Brookfield Zoo will not the same without him."

Aussie daydreams - photo by Kim Pruim

Aussie reflection
- Kim's last photo the day before he died
Photo by Kim Pruim

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Santa's gifts to the animals at the Cincinnati Zoo

Santa outside the brand new gorilla home
Every year, Santa listens to the wishes of the children who come to visit him at the Festival of Lights at the Cincinnati Zoo. Then one day, just before Christmas, he visits some of the animals of the zoo to bring them some special enrichment. This year he brought his animal surprises on Friday morning, December 22.

Santa brought sweet surprises in a plastic container wrapped in a jute bag
 This year he visited Gladys, M'linzi and Samantha at the new gorilla house, the cougars and the snow leopards at Cat Canyon, and the Komodo Dragon, who often is forgotten about as he is tucked away behind the lemurs.

Carrots make a nice wreath decoration at the new gorilla enclosure
Santa brought carrot wreaths and jute bags filled with sweet surprises for the gorillas. Long after the fruit is gone, the gorillas will have fun with the gunny sacks, playing with them, wearing them for hats, and dragging them around.

The cougars are excited by the paper mache toys

The cougars got paper mache candy canes, for they love to play with paper mache. The cougars rubbed their faces all over the candy canes and got the red paint on their fur.

Rubbing and rubbing

Keeper takes a photo

The cougars got two paper mache candy canes from Santa


The red stripes are rubbing off

Still playing

Santa watches the cougars rip apart their paper toys 
The snow leopards received paper mache stockings, and played with their new toys too.

The snow leopards got paper mache stockings

Too pretty to rip up?
Local TV stations sent cameras to cover Santa's special visit

The kids loved it

The Komodo Dragon was given a wrapped up snack
The Komodo Dragon had a hard time getting into his Christmas gift, a wrapped box with meat snacks inside.

Almost open. There were pieces of meat inside.

Santa watches the Komodo Dragon open his gift

Santa promised to return Christmas Eve with presents for all the animals.

Santa promised to return on Christmas Eve with presents for everyone, including little Kendi, the baby Black Rhino.

Anana keeps her distance from Little One

Little One dreams of a White Christmas

No, not Christmas dinner. The meercats keep warm in a bowl

Bibi and Fiona have already gotten gifts, and no doubt will get more from Santa on Christmas Eve.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Remembering Henry the Hippo

The world lost a wonderful Hippo on October 31, when Henry, who had been ill for several months, ended his journey, leaving behind broken hearts at two zoos. He was 36 years old, just past the median life expectancy of a zoo hippo. The Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield Missouri, where Henry spent most of his life, held a memorial service for this beloved hippo on November 12. Even though he had moved from that zoo to the Cincinnati Zoo a year and a half previously, he remained very dear to the people of Springfield. 

Henry drinks, Bibi turns her back
Henry was known for his good looks, and some considered him the world's most handsome hippo. He passed along his striking pink salmon coloration to his beautiful baby daughter Fiona who was born earlier this year at the Cincinnati Zoo, and became a worldwide media sensation. People have traveled from all over the country to see Fiona and her mother Bibi and father Henry. Henry was also known for his big personality. He did everything in a big way, and loved people.

Henry's beautiful whiskers

Henry was born in the San Francisco Zoo on August 8, 1981, but moved to the Dickerson Park Zoo when he was but seven months old. After a lifetime in Springfield, in June of 2016 he moved to the brand new $8 million Hippo Cove at the Cincinnati Zoo, where he met Bibi and fathered Fiona.  

Hippo Cove in the Cincinnati Zoo
He started life on the west coast, and was transported to Missouri by zoo staff in a pick up truck, back in 1982, when he was still fairly small, at 7 months. They had driven from Springfield to San Francisco, and put the young hippo into a wooden box, with bags of ice to keep him cool, in the back of the pick up truck, then continued on to San Diego, where they added a gazelle to the load. After days on the road coming back to Missouri on the southern route, Henry arrived at his new home, where he met an older lady hippo named Patsy who had come from the Memphis Zoo. 

Henry and Patsy lived in the old elephant compound, which had plenty of room. It was rather like a big barn yard. Soon a 25,000 gallon pool was added, but there was no filtration or temperature control. The pool had to be drained and cleaned every day, and the water was cold in the winter. Henry didn't mind.

Henry underwater

Henry and Patsy produced five babies in their 12 years together, but only one lived past infancy. After Patsy died, Henry lived alone for 20 years, although he had plenty of human friends. Henry was everyone's favorite animal at the Dickerson Park Zoo, the star attraction. The hippo area was enclosed by a simple fence, and there was the cement pool for Henry, but no underwater viewing. 

Visitors enjoyed watching the keepers, or even other visitors, give Henry a head of lettuce or his favorite whole watermelon, or sometimes a pumpkin, by placing it into his wide open mouth. You can find many youtube videos of Henry opening his jaws for treats from visitors, and then chomping the food to messy bits.


Dickerson Zoo staff knew that Henry needed company, and a better facility. Hippo enclosure standards had evolved, and Henry deserved a better pool with filtered water and heaters, but it was hard to find a zoo to take him. Not many zoos have up to date hippo facilities, and those that do had no room for Henry, it seemed. 

Then the Cincinnati Zoo came looking for a male hippo for their brand new state of the art Hippo Cove with a 70,000 gallon state of the art pool that was set to open in July of 2016 with a breeding pair. It was sad for the Dickerson Park Zoo to say goodbye to Henry, but everyone knew it was the best thing for their favorite animal. Henry would finally have a girlfriend again. Still, everyone in Springfield was sad to lose Henry.

Henry's bright eyes

The zoo had a big farewell party for Henry, who was almost 35 years old and weighed 3600 pounds. He had become accustomed to going into his transport crate, and one day it closed, and he was lifted by crane over the hippo yard, and put into a truck. At then end of  his trip from Missouri to Ohio, another crane lifted Henry's travel crate off the truck and set him down by Hippo Cove, his new home. Some of his Missouri keepers came along with him to help him adjust, but after he smelled and saw Bibi, he only had eyes for her.

On the opening day of Hippo Cove - July 21 2016 - 
Henry chases Bibi around the pool.

Bibi, who weighed 3100 pounds at the time, had lived most of her 17 years in the Saint Louis Zoo with her sister and two other female hippos. She had never met a male hippo. 

Henry in pursuit
For Henry, it was love at first sight. From the beginning, as soon as they were allowed in the pool together, Henry followed Bibi around like a lovesick puppy. 

Henry catches up with Bibi
Henry was always chasing Bibi, wanting to be near her. 

It was a match made in heaven, true love

Henry was smitten with Bibi right away

It was not long before she was pregnant. Hippos have a normal gestation period of eight months, but Bibi gave birth on January 24, six weeks early, to a premature baby weighing only 29 pounds, instead of the normal 55 pounds minimum.

Little Fiona

We all know Fiona's miraculous story, how she lived and thrived against all odds, raised by keepers, but always near her mother and father so she could see and hear and smell them.

Hippo Family Portrait:
Henry on the left, Bibi on the right, Fiona in the middle

When Fiona was old enough, she was reunited with her mother Bibi. A few weeks later, Henry was introduced to his daughter. He was very gentle and patient with the little hippo, holding his mouth open for long periods so she could explore to her heart's content. 

Fiona was fascinated by Henry when she first met him in the pool

Henry was very patient with his little daughter

Henry was happy to let Fiona explore his mouth

Video link - Henry and baby Fiona

Fiona would take naps underwater, nestled between her protective parents, coming up for air every few minutes as hippos do. Henry and Bibi had been physically separated from Fiona for several months, and may not have realized she was their baby. But adult hippos in a bloat will be very gentle and protective with any baby hippo. 

That is Fiona's little bottom, between her parents, during naptime.

Everything seemed perfect. In between playing with Fiona, Henry continued pursuing his lovely Bibi. The parents would ignore Fiona sometimes, while they played and sparred, and Fiona would try to get their attention back.

Henry and Bibi forget about Fiona for a bit,
 and spend time together

Mom, Dad, I am down here, Fiona seems to say

Bibi and Henry spend some time reconnecting,
while Fiona wants attention
 Zoo goers delighted in seeing this beautiful hippo family enjoying their summer days.

Henry and Fiona look so much alike

A baby hippo get to know other hippos by exploring their mouths

Fiona was only a few hundred pounds when she met her father,
 but she wasn't afraid of him at all.

Henry and his daughter

Henry and Fiona play

It was a magical summer at Hippo Cove. The hippo family was happy together.

Then the elderly Henry began to fail. He lost his appetite and his energy. Zoo staff separated him from Fiona to give him a chance to rest and recover. He did spend time with Bibi, but the zoo staff worried that Fiona would wear him out. As the summer wore on, he seemed to get better, and he was reunited with his family, briefly. Sadly, he wasn't eating again, and was losing more weight. An infection was diagnosed and treated. His appetite waned, and he became a very picky eater. 

Bibi and Henry napping

His lethargy increased, and his quality of life went downhill dramatically. The zoo staff did everything they could think of, but he only got worse, losing weight. He wouldn't even eat his favorite foods, his watermelon.

On October 31, they gave him another physical, and the results convinced them that he would not recover. He was 36 years old, an elderly hippo. He had had a good life. No one wanted him to suffer.

His loss was felt around the world, for his daughter Fiona had become an international sensation, and so many were interested in this magical hippo family. Most keenly affected by Henry's loss were the keepers in Cincinnati, and his many friends in Springfield, his home for so many years.

The modern pool at Hippo Cove in the Cincinnati Zoo has a continuous water filtration and talapia fish to clean the poop from the water, but Henry was still known for spraying people when he could. 

Farewell, Henry

However, at the Dickerson Zoo memorial service, there were many stories about cleaning out Henry's poop-filled pool daily, slipping and falling and getting covered with his poop, and the way Henry like to spray his poop at his keepers and visitors as a fun joke. As a hippo, he put forth copious amounts of the stuff. He had become a legend for it.

Many shared memories of feeding Henry from the edge of the pool in Dickerson, and he would open his mouth wide and just wait for the lettuce or fruit. 

They talked about how handsome he was, how cute and cuddly, and those magnificent whiskers, and how hard it was to trim his tusks.

Bibi and Fiona are most likely missing him too. For a time, Bibi would call out to Henry and wait for him to answer back, but of course there was no answer. They will go on without him, but it won't be the same.

A love story - Bibi and Henry
The Dickerson Zoo is planning a memorial of some kind, either a plaque or a statue, in tribute to Henry, their favorite animal resident. 

Little Fiona behind Daddy Henry

This special hippopotamus has left a legacy in his daughter Fiona as well. She looks just like her daddy, with her unusual pink coloring on her face. She has his big personality too, just like Henry.

Henry will not be forgotten.

 The photos and video in this story were all taken by me at Hippo Cove in the Cincinnati Zoo. - Molly Merrow