It's breakfast time for Arusha and Joe Smith and five-month-old Mary, their 17th offspring.
After the keeper has placed pellets of corn and oats in the hippo cages on either side of the pool, Arusha lumbers up the steps, followed by Mary who doesn't eat solids yet because she's still nursing.Only after Arusha has consumed a few snoutful of breakfast does Joe Smith feel free to climb up his side of the pool and start eating. After 23 years of cohabitation, Joe has learned who's boss.
Arusha, Joe Smith and Mary, and their pygmy hippo neighbors Matilda, Totota, Tau, epsilon, Millie and Lynn will be the attractions at "Hippo Days Are Here Again," Sunday from 1 to 3:30 at the National Zoo. In addition to tours of the hippo life in Africa and a workshop where kids will make stuffed hippos out of newspaper.
"Female Nile Hippos are larger than males," says Bill Xanten, curator of mammals at the Zoo. "It's close to a matriarchal society.Arusha and Joe Smith get into fights once in a while, usually over position in the pool. It's deeper in front, so she sometimes forces him back."
"Wherever she prefers to be, he don't be," says Lee Battle, a keeper who's had a front row seat at the Joe and Arusha sitcom for 14 years. "He'll only take so much," says Battle. Take babysitting, for instance.
"After the baby's about three months old, Joe will be trusted to babysit. One day they were all outside and Arusha wanted to come in," recalls Battle. "Well, the baby wanted to stay outside longer, so Arusha made it clear that Joe better babysit. Then after a little while he came in through her side of the cage -- where she was eating -- which is against the rules. That was his way of telling her to get the baby."
Joe and Arusha are still lapping up breakfast, each on his or her own side of the pool. Joe leaves his pile of pellets and wanders outside. Arusha finishes her meal, then ambles over to Joe's side and polishes off his.
"See, she intimidated him outside by just looking at him," says Xanten, admiringly.
Mary, at the tender age of five months, has already figured out the pecking order, according to keeper Battle.
"Once when the baby was looking on, the mother got after Joe," recalls Battle. "She roared, and he retreated. Then the baby tried it -- not a tooth in her head mind you. She thought 'He ought to move for me, too.' But he didn't."
Given their druthers, hippos would probably eat in the water: In the wild, hippos snack on aquatic plants. At the Zoo, only Arusha gets to do this and only when she's heavily pregnant. Then, according to Battle, Joe carries the hay to Arusha so she can dine in the pool.
Hippos also mate in the pool, give birth in the pool, nurse in the pool and defecate in the pool -- which is emptied, scrubbed with disinfectant and filled with fresh warm water twice a day.
Joe and Arusha's neighbors the pygmy hippos are slightly less aquatic, and also less sociable. While Nile hippos live in the wild in herds, pygmy hippos are loners. They are an endangered species, and the National Zoo has pioneered in breeding them in captivity, producing 52 of them and providing almost every zoo in the country with an example of the species.
Pigmy hippos are also territorial -- marking off their turf and daring others to violate it. At the zoo, they are kept strictly separate, except for brief encounters for the purpose of mating.
"At first, Lynn wasn't tolerant of her babies," Xanten says. "She used to push them around the floor. Then we figured out that she just got tired of looking at the baby, so we put in a lot of hay for the baby to hide under."
The big daddy of almost all of the zoobred pygmy hippos is Totota, who came to Washington in 1960 as a gift from President Tubman of Liberia. Totota is apparently willing and able to sire more pygmy hippops, but since most of the female pygmy hippos at the National Zoo are his close relatives, he'll soon be traded to the Baltimore Zoo for a hippo with a fresh bloodline.
Mother, grandmother and great-grandmother to many of them is Matilda, who is tied with a turtle for longest time as Zoo tenant. Nobody knows exactly how old Matilda is, but when she came to the Zoo as a result of a Smithsonian expedition to Africa in 1940, she was already an adult.
"We were really worried about her last year," says curator Xanten. "She got sick and wouldn't eat. But we gave her extra goodies -- bananas and apples -- and she came around."