Hippo Hippo Burnin’ Love

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There might be a “big” reason that Valentine’s Day and National Hippo Day are back-to-back (February 14 and 15). After all, what greater romance involves nearly 14,000 pounds? Such was the case at the National Zoo—the love story of Arusha and Joe Smith, the Nile hippo couple who spent 25 years together in the Elephant House . . . and raised 18 calves!

The mighty Arusha was born in 1952 in Tanzania and arrived at the National Zoo in June of 1955 as an 865-pound three-year-old. Shortly thereafter, Joe Smith arrived in DC, still a baby at six months old but immediately inaugurating hopes for future baby hippos at the zoo.

After establishing their bond early in life and maturing into adulthood together, Arusha gave birth to their first calf in June of 1959. This event shocked everyone—no one at the zoo knew that she was expecting! Thus began their successful dive into parenthood.

Scientific name: [Hippopotamus amphibius]
Arusha, Joe Smith, and baby, February 1973. Photo: Smithsonian Institution Archives
After the first-born, according to the Washington Post, Arusha gave birth every year through 1967 (the gestation period for hippos is eight months). That year, so high was the zoo’s confidence in her ability to bear healthy offspring that her calf was donated to Chile ever before it was born. Arusha did not disappoint.

She is not a pretty mother, but she is infallibly fertile, and she and Joe get along.

—Phil Casey, Washington Post, May 24, 1967

The only time that Arusha and Joe were separated was during the first week or so after each birth. Arusha was a protective mother, so Joe was moved out of Arusha and the calf’s space so that they could bond alone—and also so that the matriarch couldn’t rough Joe up. He understood very well that Arusha was the boss, so most of the time he knew when not to get too close. When she finally entrusted him with babysitting, Arusha would let him know when it was his time to give her a break from parenting. According to a keeper, Joe would even carry hay to Arusha so that she could dine in her pool. What a sweet guy!

Arusha with baby Susan in 1976. After weaning, Susan was sent to Singapore Zoo as a symbol of friendship between the U.S. and Singapore. Photo: Smithsonian Institution Archives

Arusha and Joe’s accomplishments set a record for the number of Nile hippo births in captivity. Perhaps they benefited from something in the Elephant House water. In that same building, Billy made the National Zoo famous for its successful pygmy hippopotamus breeding. Formally named William Johnson Hippopotamus, Billy was a gift to President Calvin Coolidge in 1927, and until his death in 1955 he had sired 18 little gumdrops between mates Hannah and Matilda (yes, they were all named Gumdrop [followed by Roman numerals]—and interestingly all but one were female!). According to the zoo, the lineage of most pygmy hippos living in captivity in the United States today can be traced back to virile Billy. (After successfully breeding a whopping 52 of them, the National Zoo no longer has pygmy hippos, as the last of them were transferred to other zoos with the renovation of the Elephant House in 2009.)

Arusha and Joe’s offspring were offered to other zoos worldwide shortly after weaning due to space constraints. The one exception was Happy (nicknamed “Joe Jr.” by the keepers), born January 4, 1981—a few months after father Joe sadly passed away. (I could not find any information about the cause of death. Most news coming out of the zoo at that time focused on the fervent yet disappointing attempts at breeding Ling-Ling the giant panda.)

Happy’s arrival seemed to help Arusha recover from the loss of Joe. Before Happy, Arusha would watch the hippo tank and react to any noise, possibly anticipating Joe’s return. The Washington Post noted that she seemed to be “quite listless.” One other behavior she picked up after her mate’s death was his ritual of bellowing just before the zoo’s closing time. It was if he was announcing to the visitors that it was time to leave. Never having participated before, Arusha resumed his tradition, with the keepers’ prediction that she would continue until Happy would become old enough to take over.

Arusha and son Happy remained together at the National Zoo until Arusha’s death in 2004 at the age of 52. Happy lived solo but was certainly spoiled by his keepers. “He gets two meals a day. He has ceiling fans, skylights, spray showers, an exotic mural on his walls, as well as two pools,” reported the Washington Post. Happy was a favorite of keeper John Taylor, who was exceptionally sad to see him depart for the Milwaukee County Zoo in 2009, as plans to expand the elephant habitat did not include a home for hippos at the National Zoo.

Although he hasn’t followed his father’s fertile footsteps, Happy is currently living in Milwaukee with a female friend, Patti, and doing well. The handsome guy celebrated his 38th birthday last month.

Happy the hippo at Milwaukee County Zoo. Photos from the zoo’s Facebook page.

How can you really top the love story of Happy’s parents? Given his regular love letters to the famous Fiona at the Cincinnati Zoo, Timothy the hippo in San Antonio is certainly trying! Stay tuned. . . .


“Baby Hippo Is a Double Surprise at Zoo.” Washington Post, June 2, 1959: A5.

Campbell, Mary A. “Hippo Hooray!” Washington Post, April 22, 1981. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1981/04/22/hippo-hooray/4d8d516b-7d47-4065-9fc3-8f7f9b73c35b/

Casey, Phil. “Estela (Maybe) Is an Impressive Infant.” Washington Post, May 24, 1967: B1.

Oman, Anne H. “Hippo Day: Just One Long Bath.” Washington Post, November 9, 1979. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1979/11/09/hippo-day-just-one-long-bath/c6afc903-b573-4b54-98e7-2d9ebdf71bc5/

Roby, Marguerite. “Goody Goody Gumdrops.” Smithsonian Archives blog, September 25, 2012. https://siarchives.si.edu/blog/goody-goody-gumdrops

Ruane, Michael E. “Zoo’s Hippo Must Hit the Road; Elephant Program Expanding; Keeper Already Feeling Huge Loss.” Washington Post, August 3, 2008: C1.

Ruane, Michael E. “For Happy the Hippo, Moving from Washington to Milwaukee Has Been a Pleasure.” Washington Post, November 12, 2009. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/11/11/AR2009111115683.html

Smithsonian Institution. 1955 Annual Report. https://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/annualreportofbo1955smit

Smithsonian Institution. 1957 Annual Report. https://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/annualreportofbo1957smit

Smithsonian Institution. 1959 Annual Report. https://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/annualreportofbo1959smit

Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Pygmy hippo fact sheet. https://web.archive.org/web/20071114022909/http://nationalzoo.si.edu/Animals/AfricanSavanna/factpygmyhippo.cfm

Thomson, Peggy. Keepers and Creatures at the National Zoo. New York: HarperCollins, 1988.

“Zoo Gives Hippo to Japan and Gets Rare Lions.” Smithsonian Torch, November 1976. https://siarchives.si.edu/sites/default/files/pdfs/torch/Torch%201976/SIA_000371_1976_10.pdf

“Zoo’s Female Hippopotamus Dies at 52.” Washington Post, August 26, 2004: B3. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A33720-2004Aug25.html


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