Four months old and already a celebrity.

And Omo, a Nile hippo calf, is milking it. Late afternoons at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo find the toddler waddling around near Zambezi, his 3,000-pound mother who, at 28, is a first-time mama. The crowds are gathered inside the Water’s Edge: Africa exhibit, all oohs and aahs over the tyke, who’s made headlines for being the first baby hippo at the zoo in 32 years. He struts, plays coy with his adoring admirers, then turns around so all fans see is his chunky, steel gray rump and short tail.

Two weeks earlier, the calf, named after Omo River in southern Ethiopia, weighed 255 pounds. On this day, he’s 275.

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Time for a snack for Omo, a Nile hippo calf, and his mom, Zambezi.

“They’re doing great. Omo is getting bigger every day, and he’s getting more adventurous every day,” said Philip Waugh, lead keeper of the exhibit. “He’s learned how to crawl on top of mom’s head and how not to just crawl onto her back, but how to ride around on her back while she’s in the pool. He’s getting more bold, brave and creative by the day.”

Next door is Kasai, Zambezi’s 22-year-old, 3,700-pound sister. Kasai is adept at stretching open her mouth, revealing giant tusks and all the food she hasn’t had a chance to swallow. She knows the potential for snacks is high when people appear in front of her pen. Her patience pays off, as Waugh and others toss in heads of lettuce and halved apples and oranges.

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Water's Edge: Africa Lead Keeper Philip Waugh gives Kasai a treat at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

In another part of the exhibit is Omo’s daddy, Biko, who arrived at the zoo in June 2020 on a breeding recommendation for both sisters. Staff are waiting for Omo to increase in size before introducing him to his papa, but they suspect the two will become friends.

Love is in the air

When 19-year-old, 2,700-pound Biko met the sisters, Kasai ghosted. But Zambezi quickly got eyes for the big guy. After multiple first dates, Waugh knew love was afoot when Zambezi put her chin on his back and used him as a pillow while they slept in the water. And there also was estrus breathing, which meant Zambezi letting loose a heavy exhale that sounded like a long “F” noise. Eight months later, an 80-pound baby was born.

Surprisingly sly

Hippos are the deadliest creatures in Africa, with the potential to kill more than 500 people a year, Waugh said. But it’s not because they’re more territorial or aggressive than other species; it’s that they’re so much more stealthy. One helpful treat is their ability to hide. You won’t know you’ve entered a hippo’s territory until it’s too late, and they’re very protective of their space, their young and other hippos in their group.

Menu breakdown

About 60 to 70 pounds of hay is eaten per day, plus 20 pounds of grain, depending on the hippo. The herbivores also nosh on 20 pounds of produce each day. It’s like candy for them and comes in handy when keepers are doing husbandry training and teaching the animals to participate in their own veterinary care.

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Kasai the Nile hippo at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo shows off her wide mouth on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

Calling all brave dentists

One glance into a hippo’s mouth and you’ll likely back up to be on the safe side. They have four giant canine tusks and two incisor tusks that stick straight out the front. It’s the canine tusks on the bottom people can see while the animal is eating and also what they use for defense in the wild. They use the molars in the back of their mouth to grind through hay, a lengthy process.

Oddities abound

Much like cows have four-chambered stomachs, hippos have three. Though, unlike a cow, they don’t bring up their cud for rumination. The hippos’ closest relatives are whales and dolphins, but hippos don’t really swim. They can paddle a bit but prefer a shallow pool so they can easily come to the surface. Their pools at the zoo range in depth from about 2 feet to 9 feet. Hippos can hold their breath for about five minutes, but they also have a reflex that brings them to the surface for air when they’re napping, a beloved pastime.

Contact the writer: 636-0270

Contact the writer: 636-0270

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