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How Do You Move a 4,200-Pound Hippo? Right, Carefully

May 07, 2003|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

How many people does it take to move two hippopotamuses?

About two dozen. And one to photograph it all. That's roughly how many Los Angeles Zoo staffers helped in the Tuesday morning transfer of hippos Maggie, weighing in at 4,200 pounds, and Otis -- tonnage unknown since he's never allowed himself to be weighed -- from one enclosure to a temporary new one.

Truck operators, numerous animal keepers, two curators, a veterinarian, two public relations people and a fund-raiser were among those on hand. It's all part of the zoo's elaborate shuffling of animals in preparation for a $19-million construction project of new exhibits for gorillas, elephants and hippopotamuses.

One hippo at a time made the slow, 1,000-yard trip to the former lodgings of a male Indian rhino who died in 1998. The 3-foot pool was deepened to 4 1/2 feet, which will allow them to fully submerge in the water. In the neighboring enclosure will be the zoo's 34-year-old female rhino, Rhonda, who wasn't present during the move. Two black bears in an exhibit across the path watched with mild interest.

Despite weeks of training the hippos to go into the crates in which they were to be moved to their new destinations, Otis momentarily balked. "He knew something was up," Art Gonzales, the 27-year-old hippo's keeper of five years, said later. But finally, Otis obliged.

A trailer slowly transported the crate to the new site while a zoo worker, motioning like an air traffic controller, directed the truck to the border of the enclosure. A crane operator dangled a hook over the crate while another worker, on top of the crate, linked the hook into a giant loop of the chain around the crate.

With the crate in place, a half-dozen workers -- some pulling on ropes attached to the crate, some using their hands -- helped steady the wooden box as the crane operator edged it over an enclosure ledge, brushing a tree and knocking over part of a rhino sign on its way. Once the crate landed on the other side of the ledge, the gates to the enclosure were pulled up and the crate was opened -- revealing the back side of a hippo. (Keepers deliberately let him back out, lest the animal see unfamiliar surroundings and refuse to come out.)

Otis gingerly stepped out into his new enclosure, slowly made his way through the dirt, peered around and finally ventured into his new pool.

Otis waded over to the gaggle of handlers near the edge of the pool and opened his enormous mouth, revealing huge tusk-like teeth. Zookeepers say he was either being aggressive or hoping for apples.

When Gonzales started working with the hippos, they were so fat that their bellies dragged on the ground. Now, after years of leaner menus, they are trim for hippos. Herbivores, the two daily polish off a total of 24 heads of romaine lettuce, 25 pounds of carrots, scoops of grain, and three quarters of a bucket of apples.

When 39-year-old Maggie finally arrived, more than an hour later, she and Otis nosed each other. "They're probably just making sure they are who they think they are," Gonzales said. They waded around their pool, letting out tuba-sounding growls.

Zoo officials have already sent five gorillas to the Denver Zoo. Only three are expected to return when construction is done in a couple of years. A sixth gorilla, Caesar, will soon be shipped (via crate in a Federal Express cargo plane), escorted by keepers, to Zoo Atlanta and will not return. The L.A. Zoo sends off animals -- and gets animals -- in accordance with species survival plans and the facility's needs.

But the chief animal curator, Michael Dee, never intended to send the hippos away. "I'd just as soon keep the hippos," he said. "Nobody's going to take a hippo. Everybody's got at least one. The last time there was a run on hippos was when Disney opened Animal Kingdom."

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