Who Feeds Fiona? Cincinnati Zookeepers Make Sure There Are No Hungry Hippos

Mar 28, 2020
Originally published on April 18, 2020 8:59 am

Hippos can get hungry. Very hungry. So when zoos shut their doors to the public because of the coronavirus, zookeepers keep showing up to work to make sure everyone is fed.

Jenna Wingate feeds Fiona, the Cincinnati Zoo's 3-year-old, 1,300-pound hippo. Fiona was born premature, and Wingate has been looking after her since two hours after she was born.

"She was born right around 3 a.m. and I came into work at 5 a.m. that day." Wingate recalls. "And my coworker was like, 'All right. Do you want to switch? Take turns spooning her,' because we were literally keeping her warm with our own body heat and blankets and towels and everything."

With lots of care Fiona beat the odds — she was six weeks premature — and became a star at the Cincinnati Zoo. Wingate says Fiona loves people, but she still "knows how to act like a hippo" — a "perfect combination."

YouTube

But there are no people at the zoo right now, save for the 100 dedicated zookeepers, vets and support staff who look after 500 species and thousands of individual animals.

"We're cutting off nonessential staff currently and splitting our departments into teams and working in smaller groups to kind of limit exposure between staff, all across the zoo and our animals," says Keri Ann Bolerjack, who works in the zoo's interpretive department. The goal, she says, is to keep the employees safe.

But the staff really want to be there.

"They dearly love animals and care for them through thick and thin," says Cincinnati Zoo Director Thane Maynard.

YouTube

Bolerjack, who just celebrated her five-year "zooversary," takes care of Rico, a prehensile-tailed Brazilian porcupine. Rico might be the perfect animal metaphor for social distancing, but Bolerjack says she's never been stuck by Rico's quills — and she loves to feed him.

"He's got these really long, sharp teeth that he uses to crunch all sorts of different things," she says. "He really likes carrots, sweet potatoes. He likes the dried apricots. They're kind of sticky. So he kind of makes a smacking sound when he eats those ... everybody loves to watch him eat."

Bolerjack has been working at the Cincinnati Zoo for five years. She says she loves feeding Rico the porcupine — and she's never gotten poked.
Cincinnati Zoo

Like Fiona, Rico has an online following. In fact, 700,000 new viewers have tuned into the zoo's social media feeds since the coronavirus hit. (You can find the zoo on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.)

"It's been really cool doing these live Home Safaris and seeing the support and how happy you are making people by doing them," Wingate says.

But the zookeepers still miss the springtime crowds.

"I've never seen it so quiet and so empty," Bolerjack says. She thinks having visitors is important for keeping up staff morale. The animals, on the other hand, probably don't mind so much.

"We can kind of relax a little bit and focus 110% on the animals," Wingate says. "Fiona, overall, she's doing great — she's living her regular life ... and getting tons of attention from us."

And, Wingate adds, she's incredibly lucky that she's still able to come to work.

"I'm needed," she says. "It feels good to be needed."

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Wingate and Fiona take a selfie.
Cincinnati Zoo

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Most cultural institutions are closed to the public these days. Performers and employees have gone home. But zoos across the country have a vital job which cannot be done, remotely - the care and feeding of the animals. Jeff Lunden checked in with the Cincinnati Zoo.

JENNA WINGATE: Hey, Fi. You want some lettuce?

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Jenna Wingate loves her job. She feeds Fiona, the zoo's baby hippo who's become an Internet star. Fiona was born premature three years ago, and Wingate has been looking after her since she was 2 hours old.

WINGATE: She was born right around 3 a.m., and I came into work at 5 a.m. that day. And my co-worker was like, all right, do you want to switch, take turns spooning her? Because we were literally keeping her warm with our own body heat and blankets and towels and everything. And I was like, absolutely. But it was terrifying.

LUNDEN: Fiona beat the odds and has become one of the favorite animals for visitors to the Cincinnati Zoo. But there are no visitors there right now, just the 100 zookeepers, vets and support staff who look after 500 species and thousands of individual animals. Keri Ann Bolerjack is in the interpretive department and says the zoo is working to keep its staff safe.

KERI ANN BOLERJACK: We're cutting off nonessential staff, currently, and working in smaller groups to kind of limit exposure between staff all across the zoo and our animals.

LUNDEN: Thane Maynard the Cincinnati Zoo's director, says that the essential staff really wants to be there.

THANE MAYNARD: Zookeepers certainly are in the field they're in because they dearly love animals and care for them through thick and thin. And that is a very emotional thing at times.

BOLERJACK: I just celebrated my five-year zooversary (ph) here.

LUNDEN: Keri Ann Bolerjack, again. One of the animals she takes care of is Rico, a prehensile-tailed Brazilian porcupine.

BOLERJACK: Hey, Rico. You ready to wake up, buddy? I brought you some snacks.

LUNDEN: Rico might be the perfect animal metaphor for social distancing, but Bolerjack says she's never been stuck by Rico's quills. And she loves to feed him.

BOLERJACK: He's got these really long sharp teeth that he uses to crunch all sorts of different things. He really likes the dried apricots. They're kind of sticky, so he kind of makes a smacking sound when he eats those. Everybody loves to watch him eat.

LUNDEN: Like Fiona, Rico has showed up in videos online. In fact, 700,000 new viewers have turned into the zoo's social media feed since the coronavirus hit. Jenna Wingate.

WINGATE: It's been really cool doing these live home safaris and seeing the support and how happy you are making people by doing them.

LUNDEN: But the zookeepers miss the springtime crowd, says Keri Ann Bolerjack.

BOLERJACK: I've never seen it so quiet and so empty. It's really important for us to kind of keep our morale and our mood up.

LUNDEN: For the animals, though, it's not so bad, says Jenna Wingate.

WINGATE: We would be normally going into a really busy time with all sorts of events and everything, so it's nice for us. In one way, we can kind of relax a little bit and focus 110% on the animals. Fiona - overall, she's doing great. She's living her regular life and getting tons of attention from us, so she's doing really well.

LUNDEN: And she adds...

WINGATE: I'm definitely very lucky to still get to come to work. I'm needed. It feels good to be needed.

Hey, Fi. Good job.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIMI HENDRIX'S "JUNGLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.