Meet Jessye Wojtusik, the zoo researcher whose first-of-its-kind ultrasound helped bring us Fiona

The story behind Fiona the hippo's risky birth

CINCINNATI -- Six weeks prior to Bibi’s due date, caretakers at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens received an alarming phone call -- the Nile hippo had gone into labor.

Hippos often give birth in the water, so the zoo's Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife post-doctoral researcher Jessye Wojtusik said she arrived to perform an ultrasound on Bibi to ensure the baby was still safely in the womb.

Head keeper of Africa Wendy Rice (right) and CREW researcher Jessye Wojtusik (left) arrive to perform ultrasound on pregnant Nile hippo Bibi. (Photo provided)

“I found the baby, but the problem was she had moved so far up I couldn’t locate any of her organs or spine, so I couldn’t tell what position she was in,” Wojtusik said. “Everybody was very nervous because she was very early.”

The results of their labor -- along with Bibi’s, of course -- was adorable baby Fiona born later that day. Since her birth Jan. 24, Fiona has made steady progress until recently running into some trouble teething, requiring her to receive fluids and return to a feeding tube. A Vascular Access Team (VAT) was brought in late last week to help with dehydration. 

“The vet staff and the keeper staff are taking really good care of her,” Wojtusik said. “They’re so dedicated.”

Nurses from Children's Hospital Vascular Access Team (VAT) administer fluids to Fiona. (Photo provided)

Hailing from farm country, Wojtusik said she never imagined one day her experience with livestock would land her squarely on the hippo care team. In addition to lending a hand to the 24-hour care team, Wojtusik can officially claim bragging rights for capturing the earliest photos of the baby hippo; images of Fiona while still in the womb.

Wojtusik is the first known person to perform the procedure on the species.

“They’ve done it on pygmy hippos, but they’re much smaller so I think it’s less tissue to get through with the ultrasound,” she said. “In the beginning, we were struggling a lot. Their skin is just so thick and there’s just a lot to them.”

As Nile hippos have a reputation for being difficult to train, she said others may have been reluctant to attempt the procedure. She said Bibi was extremely cooperative, learning how to move into an enclosed chute, lean in and lift her leg on command in order for Wojtusik to slide the ultrasound wand across the hippo’s belly. The actual training process for the 3,200-pound hippo progressed smoothly, Wojtusik said, with the key being Bibi’s love of food.

“So every time she does something right or stays still, the keepers are feeding her apples or beet pulp or lettuce -- so there’s constant positive reinforcement going on,” she said. 

Even though it took a few months to finally see the baby through Bibi’s thick tissue, Wojtusik said persistence paid off. At first she said they only saw dark shapes, which later became more clearly defined as the baby grew. As she was the first to record the process on Nile hippos, she said every step was a learning curve in terms of how visible the baby should be.

 

“Everybody kept saying, 'Why can’t you see it?' And when we could start to see it, every wanted to know what sex it was,” she said. “At first I could only see the ribs and the spine and that was exciting -- and then when I could see the heart beating, that day was maybe the best day ever.”

Wojtusik admits it’s more than serendipity that landed her on Team Fiona. Since childhood, the CREW researcher said hippos have always been her favorite animal. After mentioning her desire to work with the zoo’s new hippo pair, CREW Director Terri Roth sent her to begin ultrasounds on the potentially pregnant Bibi.

“Terri just knew I had a love for them and she figured out a way I could get involved and it just kind of evolved from there,” she said. 

Moe the sloth at the Cincinnati Zoo. (Christine Charlson/WCPO Contributor)

As Wojtusik had limited experience working with ultrasound, CREW assigned her to several other projects to get more familiar with imaging. Most infamously, Wojtusik performed ultrasounds on Moe the sloth, checking for pregnancy. It was during those procedures Wojtusik discovered Moe could never get pregnant because she was actually a he, solving the confusing case of Moe.

“I like to call it hazing,” she said with a grin. “They set me up.” 

Before Team Fiona, Wojtusik joined CREW to help unlock the mystery behind iron overload disorder in rhinos. She explained for reasons yet unknown, rhinos tend to build up excess iron in their bloodstream, eventually leading to organ failure. The condition claimed the lives of two Sumatran rhinos Emi and Suci at the Cincinnati Zoo as well as a number of black rhinos under professional care at zoos and other facilities. 

“It could be diet, it could be genetics, it could be so many different things,” she said. “We’re really trying to narrow in on it to find out how this disease progresses, what’s causing it and how do we stop it.”

CREW researcher Jessye Wojtusik hopes to help unravel the mystery behind iron overload disorder in rhinos. (Photo provided)

As part of her work with CREW, Wojtusik also assists other institutions in rhino reproduction, traveling to collect semen samples from males as well as helping to assess the viability of mating pairs. She explained sometimes zoos wait too long to attempt to breed rhinos, creating infertility issues for females. That’s not the case for the Cincinnati Zoo’s black rhino pair, she said, as she’s performing ultrasounds on pregnant female Seyia. The baby is due in July.

“The thing with rhinos is their skin is super thick so you can only see so deep,” she said. “You do see something float by but it’s not well defined – it’s like this little mass. But we can definitely tell she’s pregnant.”

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