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World Perspective | POLAND

Warsaw Zoo Seeks Home for 2 Hippos

Funding cuts since fall of communism leave no room for brothers Bisia and Norma. Adoption by private parties is being considered.

August 31, 1996|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PERSONAL: Two MH (male hippopotamuses) seek RHS (rich Homo sapiens) for permanent, nurturing relationship. Favorite pastimes include sleeping, eating and swimming. Domestic squabble necessitates leaving Poland as soon as possible. Good home only, please. Telephone: 011-48-22-619-7775.

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WARSAW--Bisia and Norma, hippo brothers, are in hot water. And to make things worse, the zoo here is about to pull the plug on them.

The rambunctious siblings, 1 and 3 years old, can't seem to get along with their dad, especially in tight quarters. It's a guy thing, not uncommon among males of this species, zoo director Jan Rebiszewski says.

Gucio, their pop, wants to be left alone in his sunbaked lagoon, soaking up the summer heat and the adoring attention--and handouts--of visitors. Aniela, their mom, is usually welcome, but without the pesky artiodactylous offspring.

Until now, zoo officials have mediated the dispute by splitting up the family. Norma, the 3-year-old (so named because he was first thought to be a girl), has moved into his own pool across the zoo. Bisia (named after a Warsaw radio station that pays for his meals) stays with Ma in the main hippo exhibit, rotating with Pa for dips in the murky lagoon.

But Polish summers are notoriously short-lived. By the end of October, most of the zoo's 3,000 specimens will be moved indoors for winter. Unfortunately, zoo officials say, Bisia and Norma will not be among them. "The winter pool is meant for two adults only," Rebiszewski said. "There is no way to keep the males separated in there."

So with leaves on the city's poplar trees already yellowing, anxious officials have issued an extraordinary worldwide appeal: To adopt a free hippopotamus, call the Warsaw Zoo. Come one, come all. And remember, time is short.

"I am sorry they have to go like this," lamented caretaker Tadeusz Pilipiuk, who was tossing basketball-sized chunks of watermelon into the cavernous throats of the hippos last week. "But there is no future for them here."

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The ideal solution would be to build winter quarters big enough for all four hippos. The current home, cramped and dingy, was built before World War II. But this zoo is broke. As with most public institutions in the former Eastern Bloc, the fall of communism has relegated its finances to the most-endangered list. There is an expanding dossier of private Polish donors, but a recent appeal on behalf of the hippos didn't even elicit a call.

Zookeepers outside Poland have been equally tepid. Animal swaps are common. But naughty boy hippos--not unlike their human counterparts--are unpopular adoption candidates. Four years ago, a sister hippo was easily placed at an Italian zoo; a Dutch zoo, though, lost interest in Bisia and Norma when officials there discovered their gender.

"Male hippos are very difficult to place because they are quite aggressive," said Georgeanne Irvine of the San Diego Zoo, which recently bought five wart hogs from the Warsaw Zoo. "Making a world appeal like this is quite unusual. To give animals to private individuals is not always the best way to deal with a problem."

Rebiszewski acknowledges that adoption is imperfect but says the alternative--killing the brothers--is worse. Zoo officials, he said, are screening calls about the animals and will not release them to an unsuitable home. Import permits must be secured and shipping details worked out--the animals are gratis but foster parents must bear the cost of transport.

Inquiries have come from a Swedish farmer, a German industrialist, an anonymous New Zealander and a Malaysian theme park operator. The Malaysian enterprise, known as Lagoon, is the front-runner, though offers are still being entertained. "It is a serious firm with enough money to provide good conditions," Rebiszewski said. "And the hippos would continue to be an attraction for visitors."

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