“There wasn’t exactly a manual on how to raise a preemie hippo,” says Wendy Rice, the zoo’s Africa department head keeper.
But there is a lot of information on caring for other premature mammals—especially humans. Fiona had many of the same challenges as a preemie human does. She was small, by hippo standards. At 29 pounds, she was less than half the weight of an average newborn hippo. She was also cold. Premature babies have trouble regulating their body temperature.
Cincinnati Zoo staff frantically placed calls to zoos and sanctuaries all over the world. No one had experience with a hippo so small. First, the zookeepers made a hippo-sized incubator to keep her warm in a small room directly over a boiler unit that was a cozy 100 degrees. Zookeepers would also snuggle with her to regulate Fiona’s temperature.
Keeping her warm was just one problem. Because hippos are semiaquatic, their skin needs to stay moist. Normally, Fiona would have been in the water immediately. Instead, she was slathered with a special baby lotion at the suggestion of keepers at Thula Thula, a rhino sanctuary in South Africa that has experience with orphaned hippos.