COLUMN: Is Fiona the baby hippo the hero we need but don't deserve?

'People were just rooting for her'

CINCINNATI -- It's the lumpy, gray face that launched a thousand tweets.

Actually it's more like 1,500 tweets in the last week alone -- not to mention a total of 18 million Facebook video views and counting.

Since her premature birth at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden Jan. 24, Fiona the hippo has become a genuine phenomenon.

Consider: Busken Bakery has sold nearly 30,000 Fiona-themed cookies, with $1 from each cookie going to help fund the hippo's round-the-clock care. The zoo and Cincy Shirts are selling two different kinds of Fiona T-shirts, with money from those sales also benefiting the zoo. And Fiona and her care team even got their very own hippo-inspired Brahm's Lullaby featuring Christopher Olka, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's principal tuba.

It's not just a Cincinnati thing. The zoo has gotten fan mail, calls and media requests about Fiona from across the U.S. and around the world, spokeswoman Michelle Curley said.

"It's really touching," she said. "I guess people were just rooting for her with that little helpless face and odds being against her. People have just rallied around her."

This boy had a lemonade stand to raise money for Fiona.

Many of us here at WCPO are as Fiona-obsessed as the rest of you. I have avoided writing about her because there is no way I could be objective about that sweet pile of snorts. (Let the record show, however, that I have been talking about her on WCPO's Hear Cincinnati podcast every week since her birth.)

But then one of the bosses asked me to write a column to explore why so many of us adore that little hippo, and I could resist no longer.

So why do we all love her so darned much? There are several theories.

 

Curley thinks it has something to do with the fact that Fiona was a preemie. She was born six weeks early and weighed only 29 pounds. As big as that sounds when compared to a human baby, it's roughly half of what a small, full-term baby hippo should weigh.

"We've heard from many people who actually had preemies," she said. "I think they can relate to the story."

There's also the feel-good factor.

The U.S. remains divided after the 2016 presidential election, and polarizing headlines dominate the news daily.

Stories about a premature hippo fighting for her life give people an escape from all that, said Gene Beaupre, director of government relations at Xavier University and a long-time political observer.

 

"I guess I'd call it kind of a cuddly respite from the barbs and slings of what's going on right now," he said. "It's sort of the salve on what is an otherwise kind of a wounded public."

Can I get an 'Amen'?

Through the zoo's daily updates, that little hippo gives us all a chance to forget the negativity and agree on how adorable it is when she wiggles her ears, snorts at her caretakers and opens her mouth wide like a big girl.

Fiona opens wide!

It's been a welcome change of pace for the zoo, which withstood a firestorm of criticism after last year's death of Harambe, the rare, male gorilla who was fatally shot to protect a little boy who climbed into his enclosure.

Fiona gives the rest of the world an education about what we in Cincinnati already knew: Harambe's death was a tragic anomaly for our zoo, which is dedicated to helping animals and preserving species.

Zoo Director Thane Maynard told 9 On Your Side's Kathrine Nero and Chris Riva that zoo caretakers had to learn as they went with Fiona. There was no textbook on how to care for a baby hippo born six weeks too early. Zoo staff even sent her mom's milk out to be analyzed so they could develop an appropriate formula.

It has been "all hands on deck with Fiona," he said.

RELATED: Unprompted with Chris Riva and Kathrine Nero: Thane Maynard talks Fiona

The care shows through on the photos and videos the zoo posts along with its daily updates on everyone's favorite hippo baby.

Fans around the world wait for those updates on the zoo's website and Facebook page, Curley said. And when they are later than usual, the zoo gets messages like this one:

"Hello there. Greg in Houston. Where is today's Fiona update? Me and a couple thousand followers need our fix earlier in the day. We worry when there is no news given that she's still not outta the woods. Help…."

The zoo has been cautious about Fiona communications and decided early on to be completely honest in updates when things weren't going well, Curley said.

But now that Fiona has topped 70 pounds and seems to be thriving, all the recent news has been positive.

 

Thank goodness for that. It's the daily dose of happy that so many of us rely upon.

Helpless or not, Fiona has been the hero we need but don't deserve during these tumultuous political times.

It's a good thing she wasn't a baby donkey or elephant.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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