Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
It’s one of those “Oops!” moments when birth control fails, resulting in a pleasant little surprise – though “little” is a matter of perspective.
On Monday, mother hippopotamus Karen gave birth to a baby estimated to be well over 50 pounds. That’s relatively petite when standing next to her parents, each of whom tip the scale at about 3,000 pounds, said Bricker Thietten, the ABQ BioPark Zoo’s senior mammal-keeper and primary hippo-keeper.
The baby’s gender is not yet known and won’t be “until mom and baby climb up onto dry land,” and keepers can get a better up-close look, he said. In any event, mother and baby are doing fine, although Karen is a bit stressed, trying to keep up with her active baby, instead of napping and relaxing as she did with her two previous calves.
Karen gave birth to a female calf in 2006 and a male in 2015. “That daughter is now at a zoo in Dallas and has a daughter of her own, and the son is at a zoo in San Antonio, Texas, where Karen was born, and living with his grandmother,” said Thietten.
Although Karen, 19, and her mate, Moe, 47, were part of a Species Survival Plan, Karen had been placed on birth control. “We were not actively trying to breed them, but of course, they had plans of their own,” Thietten said. After some “real strong breeding activity in November and December,” keepers subsequently noted behaviors that indicated Karen was pregnant. An ultrasound confirmed their suspicion.
The trio are currently the zoo’s only hippos.
The common hippopotamus, as distinguished from the pygmy type, is native to sub-Saharan Africa. The largest populations can be found in Zambia, Tanzania, Botswana and South Africa. There are an estimated 125,000 living in the wild and they are classified as vulnerable, with declining populations due primarily to habitat loss from human encroachment.
These herbivores live in stretches of rivers, and an average 3,000-pound animal might eat up to 60 pounds of grasses and other vegetation daily. A 5,000-pound bull might eat up to 100 pounds daily, Thietten said.
At the BioPark Zoo, their grass diet is supplemented with a variety of produce that includes sweet potatoes, apples, carrots, bananas and lettuce. “They also love full size watermelons and pumpkins, because they enjoy crushing them with their jaws,” Thietten said.
Despite their aversion to flesh, hippos are not gentle giants. They have large teeth and tusks and are extremely dangerous. According to a number of online conservation websites, hippos in the wild kill more people every year than any other animal in Africa.
“They’re very territorial of their stretch of water and they can quickly become aggressive when they feel threatened,” Thietten said.
At the zoo, “Once they learn to trust you and realize that you’re not a threat to them, they’re pretty easy to work with,” Thietten said. “They’re also very intelligent, have big personalities, and are extremely food motivated, which actually makes them easy to train and to work with.”
The life expectancy of hippos is about 40 years. Moe, at 47, “is well past that mark and exceptionally old to be a father,” Thietten said.
But what can you say? Life finds a way.