It's not unusual to hear the squeals of excitement from children at a popular zoo during the peak summer hours, especially when they have lions, tigers, elephants, gorillas, and hundreds of other unique species of animals.
At the Cincinnati Zoo though, one unlikely animal has captured the hearts of all walks of life across the country.
When you first walk into the zoo, it seems like business as usual as you wait in line to buy a ticket. Then you pick up a map, and you are greeted by the face of a chubby, gray, and bashful looking animal.
Her name is Fiona, and she is the most famous baby hippopotamus in the world.
Fiona's story begins on Jan. 24, 2017, when her mother, Bibi, gave birth to her nearly two-months premature. At just 29 pounds, Fiona was drastically underweight from the average baby hippo with a typical weight of around 55 to 100 pounds.
Fiona couldn't stand, walk, and definitely could not nurse milk from her mother. It became clear that the zoo staff would have to step in or Fiona would not make it very long.
In those first few weeks, the staff at the zoo performed what could be called a miracle for little Fiona. They were able to milk Bibi and send her milk to the Smithsonian so they could create a formula for the tiny thing to bottle feed.
Unfortunately, there is no rule book on how to raise a premature hippo. Nearly everything they did had to be made up on the spot.
Right from the day of her birth, the zoo began doing daily updates on Fiona's dire condition. Soon, they began to gather tens of thousands of likes on every single post, even if it was just a quick picture.
Today, she is the zoo's biggest star. Hundreds — if not thousands — come to visit her every day, and everything she does elicits a massive response from the crowds of children and adults, rain or shine. The miracle hippo has been a gift for many.
Since January, she has grown to over 450 pounds; has been reunited with her parents, Bibi and Henry; and has begun her life as a normal hippo.
The #TeamFiona care team told Independent Journal Review about their biggest challenges since the baby's birth:
"Being born six weeks premature, Fiona has been through her share of ups and downs. Her challenges ranged from getting enough fluids, to teething, to more recently, being in the large outdoor pool and learning to push herself off of the bottom to come up for air.
The dedicated animal care staff and vet team, along with our neighbors at Children’s Hospital all played a crucial role in her survival."
During those difficult times as a preemie, the zoo found themselves receiving unwavering support from the Cincinnati Children's Hospital's NICU staff. Watching the struggle and success of little Fiona helped give families hope in the face of dire circumstances.
The staff told IJR that two NICU nurses saved Fiona's life and in response, the zoo sent helpful hippo onesies to the hospital:
"The NICU at Children’s Hospital has been overwhelmingly supportive. From always being available for advice, to sending Fiona care packages, we have always been thankful for their help. When Children’s Hospital sent their two nurses over to insert a life-saving IV in Fiona, it really showed how much they care, and how much people were rooting for Fiona’s survival.
We also sent Fiona onesie’s over to the hospital for their NICU babies. We have also heard stories about how families going through similar things find hope in Fiona’s story."
It hasn't been all a struggle. There have been some truly hilarious moments for the staff along the way. Fiona was after all, a giant lap hippo for some time, so the team could have some fun with her.
The staff pointed out one thing in particular — bubbles:
Caring for our animals includes providing them with enrichment, and Fiona’s care team is introducing her to new stimuli like bubbles and cardboard. She wasn’t a huge fan of the way bubbles felt on her skin and tried to rub it off. It was so funny watching her react to the bubbles!
Here's the moment captured on video:
Like other preemies and their families she's inspired, Fiona still has a long way to go before she's as big as her mom. At 450 pounds, she's got about another 3,000 to go until she's reached normal adult hippo weight. Per usual, the world will be watching every step.
The care team never thought that Fiona would be such a hit. After all, hippos are some of the most deadly animals in the world. The zoo is extremely thankful they could share their love for animals on such a large platform:
We could not have predicted we would get this much attention for Fiona. The Cincinnati Zoo aims to inspire people about wildlife and wild places and to be able to share not only Fiona’s story, but other conservation and animal stories on a larger platform is something we are grateful for.
So what's next for Fiona? Television, of course. Well, not quite. Starting on Aug. 29, the Cincinnati Zoo has launched “The Fiona Show” on Facebook’s new Watch platform. You can check that out here.
In a time of fear and great political divides across the world, it's important to remember that human beings are capable of incredible and wonderful things.
The care and dedication that Fiona's team have shown over the past few months are just another example of the good things we can do.
If you ever get the opportunity to visit the Cincinnati Zoo, it is highly recommended you take a quick stroll to the Hippo Cove and see her adorable face.