An Honorary Hippo

By Louise Irvine

Our latest Ardmore acquisition inspired some more research into hippo history. For instance, did you know that the oldest captive hippopotamus in America lives at Florida’s Homossasa Springs Wildlife Park and he is an honorary citizen of the State? Lu, which is short for Lucifer, was born in San Diego in 1960 and came to Florida at the age of 4.

The 62nd birthday of Florida’s most unusual senior was celebrated recently by Florida Park Service and he even has his own Facebook page! He seems quite happy swimming in his lagoon and entertaining crowds of visitors where he is the number one attraction at the park.

Lu came to Florida in 1964 to join the Ivan Tors Animal Actors Training School. After nearly two decades as a star of movies and TV shows, Lu faced eviction from the park when it was taken over by the state in 1989 and the non-native species were removed. However, thanks to a public petition, Lu was permitted to stay after being honored as the only animal citizen in the state by Florida’s governor at the time.

If you plan on visiting Lu, pay close attention to the “Splatter Zone.” Hippos are territorial animals and they defend their territory by defecating and flinging dung with their twirling tail. With a 6,000-pound hippo, flying feces is a real threat!

It might be safer to come and see the bloat of Ardmore hippos at WMODA. Their smiling faces belie the fact that hippos are among the most dangerous animals in Africa. Despite their huge gaping jaws and fearsome reputation, hippos have long been popular with humans. There’s a Hippo Collective for fans of these fascinating beasts and there’s even a quirky documentary film entitled The Pursuit of Hippo-ness in which culture and conservation collide.

Hippos were a real hazard to riverboats on the Nile and in ancient Egypt, it was believed that the beast might be encountered on the journey to the afterlife. Symbolic ceramic models were placed in tombs and the legs were usually broken off to prevent the hippo from harming the deceased. Some surviving examples of hippo tomb sculptures are lovingly painted with aquatic plants, signifying the river marshes where the animal lived. Perhaps the most famous hippo tomb sculpture is William at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Ardmore sculptor, Alex Sibanda, was inspired by Egyptian tomb sculptures and locally carved wooden hippos sold by the roadside in Africa and he began modeling monumental hippo riders in 2010. The examples at WMODA have been exquisitely painted by the Nene sisters, Jabu and Zinhle. The museum’s latest acquisition by Alex depicts a Zulu man and woman fishing with a monkey and balancing their catch on the hippo’s back. The beast looks docile and not at all dangerous, creating a very unlikely scenario.

Ardmore’s fantasy images of hippos engaging with riders would certainly not happen in the wild. However, American circuses exhibited performing hippos from the 1920s until the late 1990s, most recently Ringling presented Zusha, Queen of the Nile. In the 1930s, Al G. Barnes claimed Lotus as the only circus-trained hippo in the USA. This 4,800-pound female waddled around the ring towing a cart and became famous in Life Magazine in 1937. Two years later, Cole Brothers circus advertised children’s rides on Big Otto, who was sensationally described as a “blood sweating hippopotamus from the River Nile". Although not blood, hippos do secret red fluid which acts as a skin antibiotic, sunscreen, and water repellent.

One of the earliest captive hippos to hit the headlines was Obaysch, who caused quite a stir in London in 1850. He was the first live hippopotamus to be seen in England since Roman times.  People flocked to Regent’s Park Zoo to see this strange ferocious animal. His mate Adhela was gifted to the zoo from Egypt and gave birth in 1871 to the first captive-bred hippo to be reared by its mother. Victorians became obsessed with hippomania memorabilia and there was even dance music entitled the Hippopotamus Polka.

Perhaps the most absurd hippo dancer is Hyacinth in the 1940 Disney film Fantasia. Her entourage of hefty ballerinas in frilly tutus continues to amuse us today. Hanna Barbera gave us a purple Peter Potamus with his monkey friend So-So. Monkeys also cavort with hippos in several of the Ardmore fantasy sculptures at WMODA so come and see our bloat of hippos soon!


Lu the Hippo

Lu the Hippo Facebook