March 9, 2017—two weeks shy of Devi’s second birthday—was a big day. It took months of planning and training to get to this point, but it paid off big time. At 7 a.m., we started what would be the last training session we were to have with Devi, aka “Miss Sassy Pants.” And it couldn’t have gone any smoother! We opened the door to her crate, called her in, and shut the door behind her. There she was, calmly sitting eating her watermelon treat, ready to begin the next chapter in her life.
Planning this event began back in October when the Species Survival Plan (SSP) made the recommendation for Devi to move to Busch Gardens Tampa Bay—first as a companion to a solitary 10-year-old female, then as a breeding partner to their male when she is a few years older. As the keeper who heard her take her first breath and witnessed so many milestones with Miss Sassy Pants, the news was heartbreaking to me. These moves happen often in the zoo world as we work together to end extinction, but it doesn’t mean they are easy for the keepers. What was easy was all the extra time we would spend with her while she was off exhibit and during training sessions to prepare her for the big move. Once we decided on the proper crate (one that could hold the 1,500-plus-pound juvenile), it had to be moved into the barn area via forklift and set up for training sessions. Devi needed to be on her own for these sessions, so we began separation training in which we would close a door between her and mom, Funani, during their in-barn feedings.
Those sessions started out as expected, both trying to get back to the other, but then they’d each go to a keeper calling them and offering treats and then be given their whole meal. When they finished their meal and they were calm, the door between opened and the reunion took place complete with snorts and adorable nose bumps resembling kisses. Once they seemed comfortable with this new routine it was time to introduce Devi to the crate.
Her first encounter was pure curiosity. She walked right in and investigated every square inch then began munching on her diet waiting at the closed end. This became a daily routine for her and Funani and things were going pretty well. Then one morning in January, we noticed that Funani showed zero interest in being reunited with Devi. Rather, she was “flirting” with Devi’s dad, Otis (who was next door) and he was flirting back. Checking the calendar, and knowing Funani as well as we do, we saw the full moon was a couple of days away. My nickname for Funani is “Full Moon Fu” because she usually goes into her estrus cycle (when is receptive to breeding) around the full moon.
Acting on the behaviors Funani was showing us, we made the decision to permanently separate her from Devi and introduce her back to Otis for breeding. Their breeding was recommended by the SSP and clearly they were ready. Devi remained in the barn area, complete with her own pool and LOTS of keeper attention until the day she left. We were worried that this permanent separation would be hard for Devi, but she was a champ, showing us that she was ready to graduate to being a big girl on her own.
Each morning, all three hippos would vocalize to each other in the barn, yet Devi seemed content to hang in the back when the others went out to the exhibit. She would play with the keepers and her toys, and participate in training sessions. Then came the day we would have our last training session with Devi and we had to say goodbye.
The moment we began the session, our emotions were mixed: nervousness about not giving off any different “vibes” about this session to Devi, and sadness that she was leaving. Then the crate door closed, and those emotions quickly turned to relief that the moment we all had worked so hard for was done. It was followed by a flush of pride that hippo and humans worked together so well and finally, excitement that she was beginning a new chapter. Sure, this chapter does not include us, but we know she is in great hands in a gorgeous exhibit and will join a new hippo friend once she completes her quarantine. A member of her new keeper team came out a few days prior to her move to start building a relationship with Devi, so she already has a familiar face in her new home. Miss Sassy Pants is well on her way to being the big grown-up hippo we helped prepare her to be.
Jennifer Chapman is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous blog, Devi, Cover Girl.