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Zoo's Hippo Must Hit the Road
Elephant Program Expanding; Keeper Already Feeling Huge Loss

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 3, 2008

The stuff we do for love.

Take JT and Happy.

Happy is not much to look at. He has stained teeth, tiny ears and he drools. He's very large -- like, slow-getting-out-of-the-pool large. And he'll sneeze on you if you're not paying attention to him. He gets away with this because he's the National Zoo's only Nile hippopotamus.

JT, on the other hand -- short for John Taylor, a keeper at the zoo -- sets aside the best hay for Happy, hoses down Happy's tongue in the morning, lobs heads of lettuce into Happy's yawning mouth, and can look into Happy's bulbous brown eyes and tell if he's upset.

Thirteen years they've been together.

But soon they will have to part, and JT, at least, is heartbroken. "Miss him ain't the word," he said. "I hate talking about it because I get too emotional."

The zoo is actively seeking a new home for Happy because the coming renovation of the zoo's elephant house, where Happy has lived his whole life, will claim his quarters.

"The hippo space we currently have is going to become elephant space," said National Zoo Senior Curator Brandie Smith. Though there is a "teeny, tiny" chance he could stay, Smith said, current plans do not include Happy.

"We need to find a new space for Happy," she said. "We want to make sure he goes to a place that's well qualified to care for him.

"The National Zoo is very strongly committed to [Asian] elephant programs," Smith said, in part because the animals are endangered in the wild. "With zoos you only have so much space available. . . . We don't have a strong hippopotamus program right now."

Happy has a little over a year before he has to move, a zoo spokeswoman said. The zoo has borrowed the giant crate in which he would be shipped, and keepers will soon start training him to enter it. A crane will probably be required to lift him, the zoo said.

But it's not easy finding a home for a 7,000-pound adult male Nile hippo. Happy, who was born at the zoo 27 years ago, needs lots of clean water, for an array of reasons that include his indoor and outdoor pools, where he spends much of his time submerged.

He also needs his own room, so to speak. Male hippos are extremely territorial, and will attack other hippos, or people, that intrude in their space. "Happy doesn't want friends," Smith said, and "hippo space is expensive."

All of this dismays JT, a tall man with long strides and two earrings, who says he had hoped to retire as "the hippo man."

"You get attached to these animals," he said.

JT, who declined to give his age, has been taking care of Happy since 1995.

The keeper was working as a parking and ticket manager with Friends of the National Zoo, which runs the parking lots and food courts, and volunteered to work for a month with the elephants and rhinos, he said. From there he landed a six-month gig in the elephant house, and that became full-time.

Like Happy, JT is local. He grew up and still lives in a neighborhood near the zoo. As a kid he would roam the zoo grounds, never dreaming that one day he would work there caring for one of the world's largest animals.

Although JT also cares for the zoo's pygmy hippos, capybaras, peccaries and Przewalski's horses, Happy is his favorite.

Hippo stats pour out of him: how fast they run on land (25 mph); how fast they run in the water (10 mph); how much they eat (55 pounds of hay, grain and produce a day); how long they live (about 45 years in the wild, longer in captivity); how much time they spend in the water (18 to 22 hours per day); how their brains are smaller than a giraffe's; and how, if they're mad, they can "break you in half like a pencil."

Generally, they get mad at trespassers entering their territory, attacking out of pure irritation, not for food. Hippos are vegetarians.

Their sweat is tinted red, and works as a sunscreen and a disinfectant. They have nasty-looking canine and incisor teeth up front and two long rows or molars in the back. They have stubbly whiskers, tongues the size of shovels and remarkably delicate-looking feet.

Happy is the 18th of 19 offspring of the late Arusha, who died four years ago. He is essentially a "big baby," JT said. He gets two meals a day. He has ceiling fans, skylights, spray showers, an exotic mural on his walls, as well as the two pools. "This is all he knows," the keeper said.

Zoo officials said they will strive to make Happy's transition as smooth as possible, to the best new home they can find for him.

At the same time, JT said, Happy is still a potentially dangerous animal. "You're talking about 7,000 pounds," he said, roughly the weight of a Hummer. "Even if he bumped you, you're dead."

"We're looking at an animal that happens to be one of the most dangerous animals in Africa," he said. Hippos, capable of mauling, crushing or drowning the unwary, "kill more people in Africa a year than any other animal except mosquitoes."

And JT is not really sure that Happy knows him.

"I think he knows my voice," the keeper said. "I think he knows my smell, or when I come around. I think so. I'm one of the keepers that's scared to say, 'Yeah, yeah, the animal knows me,' then tomorrow get killed if I misjudge."

But there is a bond. "I do love this guy, don't get me wrong," he said.

For his part, Happy will let JT cut his teeth, a dicey procedure that has to be done in captivity, where hippos' teeth can grow eight to 12 inches long from the lack of the combat that they engage in over turf and females in the wild.

The job requires care. If Happy decides to close his huge mouth, JT must get his hand and the cutting blade out in time. The keeper usually checks Happy's eyes to see if the hippo's up for tooth-cutting that day. "His eyes tell you everything," the keeper said.

Happy seems to stay submerged when other keepers pass by, but surfaces whenever JT is around, sometimes resting his chin on the poolside. And he obeys some of JT's basic hand and voice signals.

But the keeper puts the most work into the relationship.

One recent day, clad in work boots, jean shorts and a polo shirt, he spent well over an hour cleansing Happy's outdoor pool -- draining the water, shoveling out mud that had washed in from overnight rain, and hosing down the concrete.

Inside, Happy was submerged in his indoor pool, waiting for breakfast, which JT had not had time to prepare.

It was okay, JT said. He would make Happy a nice kale salad for dinner.

Parting will be difficult, he said. "I know what has to happen," he said. "I know what's best for this guy. It's going to be hard. I'm going to have to accept it.

"I was hoping to retire working with hippos, having another baby hippo," he said. "My plans were like, wow, I was going to be the hippo man. Now I've got to, hopefully, find birds or reptiles or something to take care of."

"It's sad."

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