All those names fall into a category I call “country of origin.” That’s when a zoo animal has a name that is in some way related to where it comes from, either through geography, history or language.
The panda name sweepstakes got me thinking about other names at the National Zoo. I did a quick survey and came up with a rough taxonomy of animal names. Call me the Carl Linnaeus of the beastly moniker.
Other country-of-origin names include two immense Russian wolfhounds donated to the zoo in September of 1892 by Byron C. Daniels, U.S. consul at Hull, England. The dogs were called Sokorouchai and Outechka. I don’t know what those names mean, but they sure sound Russian to me.
Wrote a reporter for the National Tribune: “The hounds are of the famous Borzoi breed, a strain for ages past the peculiar property of Russian nobility, and they can boast a pedigree almost as remote as that of their autocratic sovereign, the czar.”
Around that time, the zoo also had a lion, said to be the largest in captivity. It was named Lobengula, after a 19th-century king in southern Africa.
In 1911, zoo superintendent Frank Baker reportedly resorted to chance to choose the name of a new baby hippopotamus. According to the Washington Herald: “Last Friday, when the girl baby hippo arrived at the zoo, she was nameless. . . . Dr. Baker grabbed an atlas, shut his eyes as he opened the page at Africa. Then he jammed his finger down on the book and reopened his eyes. His finger pointed to Mombasa.”
Mombasa it was.
Some wild animals have distinctly Anglo names. In 1904, Menelik II, the king of Abyssinia — present-day Ethiopia — donated a lion to the United States. The zoo could have gone with “Menelik” or something Ethiopian. Instead the lion was named Joe.
In 1927, rubber magnate Harvey Samuel Firestone donated a pygmy hippo to the zoo. It was named William Johnson Hippopotamus, although everyone called him Billy. Billy was famously virile, siring offspring with a pair of females, both of whom had names as human as his: Hannah and Matilda.
And what were the baby hippos called? The first to survive was born in 1938. A child commented that the calf resembled a massive licorice gumdrop. The name stuck: Gumdrop.
It stuck to all the other pygmy hippos, too, every last one of which was named Gumdrop. The zoo used Roman numerals to keep them straight.
Billy died in 1956, a few months before Gumdrop XVIII was born. Eighteen hippos in 18 years. As a zoo official said: “He carried his work to the end.”
In 1960, William V.S. Tubman, the president of Liberia, gave a male pygmy hippo to President Dwight Eisenhower. It was named Totota, after the Liberian town where Tubman had a country estate and private zoo (file under “country of origin”).
The National Zoo decided to retire the Gumdrop moniker for Totota’s offspring, instead using letters of the Greek alphabet. The first was a female named Alpha. On they went. Nu, the 13th, was born in 1968.
Sometimes animal names refer to their physical traits, as with two elephants who arrived in 1913: Jumbo Jr. and Jumbina. Their names echoed that of P.T. Barnum’s famously large elephant, whose name was used to describe everything from shrimp to passenger jets.
And sometimes a name employs what the Greeks called antiphrasis. That’s when a name reflects an opposite quality, like when a fat man is called Tiny.
That must have been the case with a Rufus-bellied wallaby. In 1923, the Evening Star published a strange article on the personalities of various zoo animals. It dubbed the Australian marsupial the “dumbest of all creatures” at the zoo.
“He must have a brain the size of a flaxseed,” wrote the author. “He suffers the pangs of poverty of intellect. His perception is clouded. . . . He’s an empty-headed, long-eared, bleary-eyed, awkward, untutored, unlettered, hopeless misprint.”
The wallaby’s name? Plato.
The name game
You probably don’t have a wallaby, hippo or giant panda, but do you have a pet whose name has an interesting story? Send it to me — with “Pet name” in the subject heading — at email@example.com.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.