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Baby hippo lifts spirits at Ohio zoo that faced backlash for killing gorilla

CINCINNATI -- A prematurely born hippo in Ohio has been providing regular doses of happiness for animal lovers, in a show of public affection that’s also given an emotional lift to Cincinnati Zoo workers.

After months of backlash over the zoo’s fatal shooting of Harambe, a gorilla who became a pop culture phenomenon in death, baby Fiona is the new center of attention there.

“She has brought everyone together,” said Jenna Wingate, one of Fiona’s caregivers. “It brings us to tears sometimes.”

Dan from the hippo team gets a warm greeting from Fiona. The baby hippo has been raised by a team of human caregivers since she was born, six weeks premature, on January 24. #TeamFiona

Posted by Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden on Saturday, April 22, 2017

Blog and video updates such as Fiona taking a bottle, splashing in a pool or learning to run have drawn tens of millions of online views. Tens of thousands of people have bought Team Fiona T-shirts, and thousands more have eaten a Cincinnati bakery chain’s Fiona-themed treats, with proceeds supporting the zoo’s efforts. She gets so many cards and letters that she has her own mail bin.

On a recent sunny afternoon at the zoo, Gina Brockman, of Taylor Mill, Kentucky, got her children in place for a photo near the hippopotamus area and just before snapping it, said: “Say Fiona!”

“They can’t wait to see her,” Brockman said. “I think she has brought everybody lots of excitement.”

Posted by Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden on Friday, April 21, 2017

Zoo officials say zoos are increasingly using newer media to interest the public, such as the recent livestream of April the giraffe giving birth in New York’s Animal Adventure Park.

Giraffe gives birth with more than 1 million people watching 01:53

Zoos “are utilizing new ways to give the public a firsthand account of caring for the animals at their facilities,” said Rob Vernon, spokesman for the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, based in Silver Spring, Maryland. “Fiona is a great example of using social and traditional media to tell her story.”

Some animal rights activists are skeptical.

“Basically, it’s a marketing tool,” said Michael Budkie, who leads the Cincinnati-area group Stop Animal Exploitation Now! “They focus so much attention on baby animals because people like to see them. What happens to these animals when they’re grown?”

Budkie, who said animals should be in natural habitats, not “gawked at by human beings,” was among many who criticized the zoo after the May 28, 2016, shooting of Harambe by a zoo special response team to protect a 3-year-old boy who fell into the gorilla enclosure’s moat. Harambe’s death was mourned and satirized in a social media response that swept the globe.

The Cincinnati Zoo shut down its Twitter account for two months last year after hacks and waves of negative comments.

The strong positive response to Fiona has helped what the zoo’s director has described as a healing process after Harambe.

“It’s been a very welcome thing,” Wingate said.

But there was no guarantee that Fiona’s story would be a happy one. Born Jan. 24, six weeks early, the calf was 29 pounds, well below the normal birth weight of 55 pounds to 120 pounds. The first Nile hippo born there in 75 years was unable to stand or to nurse, so zookeepers, vets and volunteers began raising her with 24-hour attention.

“We weren’t expecting this premature hippo to survive,” said Wingate.

Fiona Underwater

Get a glimpse of Fiona’s underwater moves. She’s working hard on doing a roll but hasn’t quite made it 360 yet. #TeamFiona

Posted by Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden on Thursday, March 2, 2017

She got advice from the Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage in South Africa, which raises baby rhinos whose mothers are killed by poachers. Wingate said they advised keeping the baby hippo warm and moist, and getting her into the pool as much as possible.

Some of the early updates were about setbacks; one day she wasn’t gaining weight, another she wouldn’t take the bottle.

Zoo spokeswoman Michelle Curley said the policy is to be transparent, sharing bad news as well as good.

“You’d have these awesome days with her then you have a couple bad days,” Wingate said. “You try to keep yourself guarded. But she’s doing well now. Something could still happen, but we’re not as stressed now.”

A pink hippo plush toy, a baby book, superhero capes and more goodies that were found in the gift basket sent to the Cincinnati zoo. WKRC-TV

The nursing staff at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) delivered a care package to the zoo.

The gift basket included a baby book filled with details about Fiona’s early days, a stuffed animal, a pacifier, and four superhero capes signed by 200 staff members. And one of the most special gifts: what NICU nurses call “beads of courage,” a strand of beads representing each of the baby’s medical or life milestones while in their care.

The zoo thanked the NICU nurses by sharing a picture of Fiona’s caretakers posing with a sign and holding up items from the basket.

Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden staff members (L-R) Jenna, Dan, Tami, Natalie and Wendy pose with a “Thank You” banner. Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden

The zoo workers have been increasing Fiona’s contact with her parents, and they plan to slowly get her ready for in-person viewing by her fans. That likely will come in May, around the time of the one-year anniversary of Harambe’s death.

“We’ve had the spotlight on us for almost a year,” Curley said. “It’s nice for it to be for positive reasons now.”

A premature hippo named Fiona snuggles with a stuffed animal that was given to her as a gift by Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden/Natalie Holthaus
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