Hippo Caretaker Jenna Wingate and the Cincinnati Zoo’s Preemie Fiona
Preemie Fiona turned five years old in January and senior hippo caretaker Jenna Wingate remembers the moment she first saw her. When Wingate was the Africa keeper at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, she worked closely with Fiona right after she was born. It was a life-changing experience for her and a career highlight.
Getting to know Fiona and her care team has been an unforgettable experience for Wingate, who has seen the calf grow and change in ways she never expected. She has watched her gain weight, get out of pools and graduate to bigger bottles — all while keeping her stubborn, slimy nature in check.
Fiona is a social media darling and a big reason why people visit the Cincinnati Zoo every day, but her keepers also say that she’s been an incredible teacher of their skills as well. They’ve gotten to learn so much about the hippo’s behavior, from how they eat to what they like to do in their free time and their interactions with visitors.
They’ve learned how to be her ear bud, to hold her paw and to give her cues when she needs help. They’ve watched her interact with other zoo animals, such as the meerkats.
Meerkats are an interesting species to work with. They’re so smart, they can play tricks, they’re very social and they’re extremely curious. They’ll go and explore tree bark or a stump on command. They’ll also drop into a pile of straw, poke bugs out of holes drilled in the ground and even jump into underground tunnels to forage, according to Wingate.
There aren’t many things that make a zookeeper happier than seeing one of their charges thriving. So it was a thrill to see that Bibi, the mother of Fiona, is due to give birth again soon at the zoo.
Whether or not she gives birth, however, it’s safe to assume that Fiona will have a baby sister if the zoo’s breeding program goes as planned. It’s been a couple of weeks since the zoo added 18-year-old male hippo Tucker to Hippo Cove, and they hope he and Fiona will be able to live together for the rest of their lives.
After all, the zoo follows a genetic survival plan that determines which animals breed and keeps a wide genetic diversity within the hippo population. It’s possible that Tucker may leave the zoo at some point, but it’s very unlikely.
He’s already a big hit with Bibi, but the pair has yet to be introduced together. Once they’re comfortable, they’ll share space and become a family.
They’ll need to be trained and familiarized with different behaviors in order to minimize any anxieties or stress about procedures that will need to be done to keep the baby healthy, zookeepers say. This is part of a process called behavioral training, which the zoo uses to keep its animals happy and healthy.
This process is an important step to ensuring the long-term health of the animal and the zoo, and it’s a good one. If a hippo is comfortable in its surroundings, it will be less likely to get sick. It will also be more likely to breed with other hippos, which can lead to increased genetic diversity and fewer extinctions.