Rube the hippopotamus, one of the oldest and most popular animals at the San Diego Zoo, was put to sleep Wednesday.
Rube was 51 years old and believed to be the oldest living hippopotamus in captivity.
"We try not to get too attached to them, but you can't help it," said Rube's keeper, George Muro. "You feel like crying. We gave him the best care we could, all of us. He was one of our favorites."
Zoo spokesman Jeff Jouett said the animal had been suffering from a combination of complications caused by an abscessed tooth and severe arthritis since October. Rube was treated with antibiotics and painkillers but his condition did not improve. In recent weeks, Rube had been so ill he was unable to eat.
"At one point, he weighed over 6,000 pounds, but when he was weighed today, he was down to 3,000," Jouett said. "He seemed to be in quite a bit of pain." Richard Sweeney, the zoo's animal care manager, said that the decision to inject the animal with an overdose of a tranquilizer was a difficult one for the staff but that they couldn't bear to see Rube suffer any longer.
"He came around a few times, and we thought he was going to make it," Sweeney said. "But then he started to go downhill again, and it wasn't fair to him to try to keep him going."
Rube was born in Ethiopia in 1936 and came to San Diego in 1940 via the Calcutta Zoo in India. He was one of the zoo's longest residents.
"They built the zoo around Rube," Sweeney said. "It's really not going to be the same without him."
Sweeney said that hippos in the wild generally live 25 to 30 years, but in captivity may live much longer.
"Rube was fortunate that he was here because he lived a heck of a lot longer than he would have otherwise," Sweeney said.
Rube, who was known for his pleasant disposition and hearty appetite, was as popular with the zoo's visitors as he was with its staff, Sweeney said.
Received His Daily Bread
"He had a lot of friends," Sweeney said. "People tossed him goodies every morning whether they were supposed to or not. One old guy would come in here every morning with seven or eight loaves of bread and head straight for the hippo trail. And Rube would be waiting for him."
Muro said Rube loved to perform for an audience, particularly when he was being hosed down--his favorite activity after eating.
"He'd open his mouth and put on quite a show," Muro said. "He liked to be tickled around the gum area with a rubber hose. Like a water pick, you know."
Muro and Sweeney were already wondering how they were going to break the bad news of Rube's death to the zoo's regulars.
"A lot of the old-timers, retirees, who come in will ask about him," Sweeney said. "I know their No. 1 question will be, 'When are you getting another one?' "
With Rube gone, the zoo has one hippo left--Rube's 44-year-old daughter, Lotus Blossom.
Lotus--one of 28 hippos sired by Rube with his long-term mate Ruby, who died in 1982--spent most of the day after Rube's death lying quietly at the bottom of the hippo pond. Zookeepers thought this was her way of mourning.
"She's mopey," Sweeney said. "She's been looking around for him. She knew something was up." Rube's other offspring have been distributed to zoos around the world--from Calgary to Honolulu.
Jouett said the zoo plans to replace Rube with a pair of hippos that can be used for breeding purposes.
Sweeney said the zoo will have to acquire a new hippo to retain its popularity.
"One thing about Rube, he was a drawing card as far as the zoo was concerned," Sweeney said. "I don't think the public right now will let them get away without having a new hippo."
But Sweeney admitted that even a new hippo could not make up for the loss of Rube.
"You can replace them, but not really," he said.