Tiptoeing Around Hippo Ensures a Smooth Move

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 30, 2009

How do you sneak a 5,000-pound hippopotamus out of Washington?

Throw a tarp over him. Nobody will notice.

That's what the National Zoo did Monday, spiriting its beloved Nile hippo, Happy, out Connecticut Avenue and off to a zoo in Milwaukee in a covered crate on a flatbed truck at the close of morning rush-hour.

The zoo, which had been planning the operation for a while, said it smuggled Happy out of town for his own benefit. He's a sensitive guy and was leaving the only home he's ever known.

Zoo officials feared a goodbye fuss might upset him, and who needs an emotional hippopotamus on an 18-hour drive?

"We could not afford to have a large crowd of people, whether they were staff or media or joggers or anybody in the area," because of the delicacy of the transfer, zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson said.

Another spokeswoman, Karin Korpowski-Gallo, said: "It wasn't in his interest to have him see out [of the crate], or to have anybody be able to see in."

The operation started before dawn.

The zoo announced more than a year ago that it had to find a new home for Happy because his quarters in the old elephant house were being eliminated in the current renovation of the Elephant Trails exhibit.

The Milwaukee County Zoo, which has two female hippos -- Patty and Puddles -- and a new $1.5 million hippo compound with showers and padded floors, agreed to take Happy. He arrived there safely about 3 a.m. Tuesday.

"We're sad to see him go," Korpowski-Gallo said, "but everyone knows he's going to such a bright future." Milwaukee zoo officials said they eventually want to mate Happy with one of their females.

National Zoo officials said they had been training Happy to get up early so he would not be undone by Monday's 5:30 a.m. wakeup call. Happy has lived a pampered existence, with his own outdoor pool and his own enclosure, since his birth at the zoo Jan. 4, 1981.

But he'll do anything for food, and that includes wake up early. So they got him up before sunrise, coaxed him into the specially built 10,000-pound crate made of steel and wood, and covered it with a gray tarp. His longtime keeper, J.T. Taylor, tried to soothe him, talking through the crate slats, and saying, " 'Just remember, I'm not doing this to you,' " Korpowski-Gallo said.

The crate was hoisted onto the flatbed with a 120-ton construction crane. For security reasons, there were no signs on the truck indicating that the cargo was a hippopotamus, the zoo said.

The last thing you need is a hijacked hippo.

The 800-mile trip went well, zoo officials said, although they couldn't let Happy out to use the restroom. The route took the group out on the Beltway and northbound on Interstate 270. Two keepers and a veterinarian went along in a chase car in case of trouble. And zoos along the way were alerted in case of an emergency.

There was a pause of a few hours at an African safari wildlife park near Sandusky, Ohio, where Happy was hosed down, officials said. He had hay and produce in the crate to munch on, but the zoo said it was not clear if he ate anything.

"He was in good spirits when he arrived," said Milwaukee zoo spokeswoman Jennifer Diliberti.

"He started eating shortly after he was unloaded," she said. The meal included hay, kale and cantaloupe. "He appeared to be in good shape."

For now, she said, he's still under wraps, behind a curtain that covers the window of his new enclosure. Once Milwakee zoo officials determine that he's healthy, the curtain will come down, and he'll go on display.

Diliberti said she can't wait to see Happy. "Just from his pictures," she said, "he looks beautiful."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company