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The 5,500-Pound Question
How to Move a Hippo 800 Miles? Zoo Officials Are Thinking: Very Carefully.

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 30, 2009

Happy the hippopotamus placed his right foot on the threshold of the giant moving crate and paused.

He peered warily at his keeper, who was standing at the other end of the crate, trying to coax him in with a bucket of bananas.

"C'mon, Happy," said the keeper, John Taylor. "C'mon. You're not going anywhere today." Happy wasn't buying it. He gave Taylor a suspicious look and backed away. He was having a moment, Taylor said.

Happy, who has bulbous brown eyes and skin the color of an earthworm, may not be going anywhere right now. But the National Zoo's lone Nile hippo, who was born and has lived his whole life there, will probably be moving this summer to the Milwaukee County Zoo.

Curators are pondering: How do you move a 5,500-pound hippopotamus 800 miles?

First, you've got to get him in his timber and steel moving crate. And that takes practice.

There's also the size of the crate. Zoo curators think the one they have might not be wide enough for Happy to lie down in during the journey.

Then there's the size of the truck -- the journey will be a kind of hippo road trip, Happy's first.

And there's the size of the crane it will take to hoist him out of his yard. That task will probably be the most delicate because the crate should be kept perfectly level, curators said.

"We want the crate to be as stable as possible, as if it's levitating," said National Zoo Senior Curator Brandie Smith.

Happy has to leave Washington because the National Zoo's ongoing expansion of its elephant exhibit will claim his quarters. And the Milwaukee zoo wants to expand its hippo presence and possibly breed Happy, who recently turned 28.

Zoo officials plan to map out the best route to Milwaukee, as well as two alternates. They will also alert zoos along the way to have veterinarians on standby, in case of an emergency.

"You can't pull over at a gas station," Smith said. "If something horrible happened on an interstate, instead of being stuck in traffic, what they could do is go to a zoo, and he could be tended to there."

Happy will probably be traveling in an air-conditioned truck to ward off summer heat. The trip will probably take most of a day, officials said.

Curators do not anticipate trouble, Smith said, but they are thinking through every possible scenario.

Happy could get overexcited, or hungry, or hot, or thirsty. The zoo plans to have plenty of water and munchies for the journey and lots of pre-trip practice. "We're doing this now so he won't freak out," Smith said.

If all goes as planned, he will join Milwaukee's two female hippos, Puddles and Patty, in what is expected to be a swanky new multimillion-dollar hippo exhibit there.

"Imagine if you lived in an efficiency apartment, and then you moved into this gorgeous new mansion," Smith said. "We want to think that he'll miss us . . . because we like him so much. . . . [But] he is a hippo . . . so he won't be homesick."

Officials at both zoos have high hopes for Happy's encounter with Patty and Puddles. Male hippos are extremely territorial and can be aggressive with other males, Smith said, but not necessarily with females. "If they have a territory, it's to attract a mate," she said.

Happy will be gradually "introduced" to the females, she said. "You start out small," she said. "First you smell each other. Then you see each other. Then you kind of get a little contact."

But first, Happy has to get to Milwaukee.

Taylor, who has been Happy's keeper for 15 years, practiced getting him into the crate yesterday, with one end closed. The zoo has had the crate in Happy's enclosure for months, trying to get him familiar with it. Keepers must gradually get him used to having one end closed, then both ends closed.

"We make getting into the crate fun," Smith said.

Food is the key.

The crate is chained to an entryway of Happy's enclosure so he has to pass through it to go into his yard.

Yesterday, Taylor, known as JT, placed a bundle of delectable alfalfa at the closed end of the cage. Happy loves alfalfa, although it is too rich for him to eat all the time.

Taylor then enticed Happy toward the entrance with banana and apple chunks, pitching them into the hippo's yawning mouth.

As he stood outside in a light rain, Taylor spoke soothingly as he coaxed the animal toward the crate.

"Come here, Hap, come on," he said, lobbing food. "You like that, don't you? You eat all your hay, now?"

Taylor banged the banana bucket on the crate to try to get the hesitant animal to enter. "You're thinking about it," he called. Eventually the lure of the alfalfa was too much, and Happy ambled in.

Taylor said he will miss Happy. He's not sure whether the hippo will feel the same way.

"I think he's going to forget about me after the first day," he said. "That's my biggest fear. Because they're going to have two ladies down there."

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