Zoo's Hippo Must Hit the Road

Elephant Program Expanding; Keeper Already Feeling Huge Loss

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 3, 2008; Page C01

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.

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