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Personal Space

The hippo lady

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COLLAN FITZPATRICK
  • Collan Fitzpatrick

Maggie, Zambezi and Kasai love sunbathing, PB&J sandwiches and having their teeth brushed. But these are no ordinary girls -- they're Cheyenne Mountain Zoo's three resident Nile Hippopotamuses. They are also some of zookeeper April Hyatt's favorite animals.

"They're kind of almost family members, because you see them every day for eight hours," she says.

Although she spends most of her time feeding and cleaning up after the hippos and other animals in the aquatics building, Hyatt also educates the public and trains the beasts.

The "girls" have learned to respond to verbal commands and hand gestures, as when they are instructed to open their mouths for some dental hygiene. Zookeepers give the hippos things like cantaloupes and pumpkins to keep them entertained. In the winter, they build snowmen for the hippos, which are native to tropical parts of Africa.

"They're definitely a little shy around (the snowmen)," Hyatt says. "Anything that's different, that kind of mixes their day up a little bit, they seem to really enjoy."

Working with the hippos also has allowed Hyatt to see their personalities develop. Maggie is the oldest and "the wise one," Zambezi is "the oddball," and 5-year-old Kasai is the adventurous baby.

As cute as they seem, hippos can be pretty dangerous. After all, they weigh up to 8,000 pounds -- the weight of four large pickup trucks -- and are responsible for more human deaths than any other large mammal.

"They're not pets," Hyatt says. "You definitely have to watch yourself around them -- around any of the animals."

- Jessica Sidman

Photo by Collan Fitzpatrick

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