Baby Fritz and his Hippo Handler, A Kind of Love Affair

Meet Jenna Wingate, Zookeeper to the Stars

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Hope everyone had a good week, and my thoughts go out to those in Florida and along the coastline north.

This latest missive is definitely a feel-good story that is sure to bring a smile to your face. Every part of my research and writing of it certainly did on my end. And thanks in advance for your patience with my rookie attempt at cutting a video. Please share the Fritz happiness far and wide..

In late July 2022, Jenna Wingate was having a nightmare. She was at her home in Cincinnati, her 19-month-old son Lincoln in the neighboring room. In a way she was having the kind of frightful dream that studies have shown many late-term pregnant mother’s experience, the kind where their soon-to-be-born child is sick, crying, or is suddenly whisked away from her—and she must do something quick.

Here’s the thing though: Jenna wasn’t pregnant. But as senior keeper in the Cincinnati Zoo’s Africa department, one of her closest charges, the 23-year-old, 3,200-pound hippopotamus Bibi was. After years and many dramatic moments together, their connection was such that one might argue Jenna experienced the nightmare in Bibi’s stead.

“Bibi went into labor,” Jenna says, reliving the nightmare. “She was like roaring and making all these noises that they don’t normally do, and I don’t know, my dream was just so realistic.” At one point, Jenna had to perform chest compressions on the newborn hippo. Then she woke up. “I tried to check on our cameras and make sure Bibi was okay…and of course, we had just had a power outage and cameras weren’t working.”

Unable to sleep, Jenna emailed her fellow keepers at the zoo to confirm that Bibi was alright. All was well and safe, and they were prepared if the mother went into labor. After the premature birth of her first baby hippo Fiona, everybody was rightfully on edge.

Finally, on August 3rd, Bibi looked ready to give birth. Volunteers and keepers had been keeping a 24-hour vigil on her and noticed that she wanted to be alone in the Hippo Cove. “That’s typical,” Jenna explains. “When hippos feel like labor is imminent, they’ll go off on their own and find a shallow, safe area away from the bloat (hippo term for family/clan). And Bibi was unsettled, swimming back and forth, where she normally would be napping. She just didn’t want to leave the water or really eat.”

At seven o’clock in the evening, Jenna remained at the zoo, watching Bibi on the cameras that surveilled the cove, not wanting to disturb her. At one point, Bibi came out of the water and looked like she was having contractions. Then Bibi lumbered backward into a stall, just out of view of the cameras. All the lights were off inside the cove, but Jenna watched the screens, just in case Bibi came back into view. Hippos typically give birth in the water, and Jenna worried that Bibi would not be able to steer her struggling newborn to the surface.

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At 9:40 pm, Jenna heard a “plop and splat.” (a birthing description that now brings her a chuckle). Bibi had clearly delivered her baby in the stall rather than in the water, the same as she had with Fiona. As the primary hippo keeper, Jenna eagerly went into the cove to check on her and hopefully the healthy newborn hippo. She only had her phone flashlight to illuminate the space. There were drops of blood around the cove. Then Jenna spotted the baby hippo trying to stand and walk. That was a good sign, and wanting mother and baby to be alone, Jenna quickly left.

The staff veterinarians joined her later to inspect the newborn: a healthy baby boy hippo that weighed a robust 80 lbs. For a short while, Bibi kept some distance from him. “She was a little in shock, like staring at him like ‘what just happened?’…a few minutes later, Bibi gathered herself and was being a great mom.”

After a public collection of names (220,00 people voted), Jenna announced on the TODAY Show that the newborn would be called Fritz.  Jenna and the zoo staff thought it a fitting name, especially since Bibi had a surprise pregnancy. She was on birth control in her couplings with father Tucker, but the medicine had clearly been on the ‘fritz’.

Now Jenna had a new baby to keep.

So how does one become a hippo keeper?

Jenna was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She and her siblings played sports year-round, and her parents just didn’t think it would be fair to have a pet since the family was out so much. That did not stop Jenna from going around the neighborhood ponds and woods, catching frogs, salamanders, turtles, and insects. “I tried to find as many as I could and just count them. I was always just interested in animals, and I fell in love with them.”

At Indiana University, she studied biology and animal behavior. From the start, she was clear she did not want to be a veterinarian because of the “stress, the medical part, and all the sad things they have to deal with…I just wanted to work with animals and build relationships with them.”

A series of internships in college set her on this path. One summer she worked at a rehabilitative wildlife center, the next at an exotic animal sanctuary. She loved both experiences, particularly with how close she could interact with the animals. Neither internship paid, however. Most of the staff were volunteers—and the few jobs they had were poorly compensated and almost impossible to get. Upon graduation in 2009, she moved to Cincinnati and won another internship, this time with the city’s famous zoo, and “just never left.” In the beginning, the position was unpaid, but she served at a restaurant on evenings/weekends to pay the rent. Some nights, she also wrangled kids at the zoo’s nocturnal adventures program and taught them all about the animals.

This led to a seasonal paid position in the zoo’s elephant department, then a promotion to temporary keeper (kind of like a substitute teacher, she filled in across departments). In 2014, a full-time keeper job opened in the Africa department, where she still works today, now as the lead hippo keeper.

It is the ideal place for her. Since first coming to the zoo, she found that she liked working with large animals the best. “We could come up to the elephants and hug their trunks. Just being next to an 8,000-pound animal and feeling safe is amazing. And they’re so smart. I feel like the luckiest person ever.”

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Fritz was always destined to be famous. His now 5-year-old sister Fiona made sure of that. Born six weeks premature, Fiona battled the odds to survive. Jenna was there every step of the way and speaks about her charge in the manner of an adoring parent. “She was born right around 3 a.m., and I came into work at 5 a.m. that day. And my coworker was like, ‘All right. Do you want to switch? Take turns spooning her,’ because we were literally keeping her warm with our own body heat and blankets and towels and everything.”

Weighing only 29 lbs. at birth, a third of the weight of most viable infant hippos, Fiona was not expected to live. In her first six weeks, Jenna and others caring for her (Team Fiona) feared at any moment she would die. One crisis followed the next. At one point, some vascular access nurses from nearby Cincinnati Children’s Hospital saved her by inserting an IV into her tiny veins to keep her from a near-fatal bout of dehydration. With Fiona unable to nurse, veterinarians figured out how to milk Bibi and then Team Fiona bottle-fed the baby hippo.

The zoo staff made the conscious decision not to hide these struggles from the public. The reaction was incredible. As the New York Times reported: “Overnight, Fiona became a symbol of resilience and positivity. Buzzfeed ran listicles of her bravest moments, calling her a ‘sassy, unbothered, unproblematic queen.’ NPR ran a national report on her swelling celebrity status. One website called her ‘The Only Good Thing Left in This World.’” On social media, Fiona gathered hundreds of thousands of fans, and one post alone reached 32 million people.

Although Fiona is now fully-grown and healthy, Jenna admits that she still gawks over her, amazed to interact with her every day she comes to work. Jenna explains why she thinks Fiona became so popular. “She’s so relatable in so many ways. People come to me and explain how they got through hardships because of Fiona. Parents who had babies in the NICU. Survivors of breast cancer. Just her being the underdog and fighting a battle and people seeing her on the good days, the bad days…she meant something to them. It didn’t hurt that she turned out to be the most personable hippo in the entire world, seeking out the cameras and people, especially it seems those who are having their own struggles or need special attention.”

Jenna alights when finishing her thought. “There’s just something special about her. And then, of course, people fell in love with the rest of the family. Bibi is a great mom. Tucker is a true gentleman. And now Fritz is so adorable.”

Despite the media blitz, first with Fiona, then Fritz, Jenna will be the first one to tell you that being a hippo handler is not all glamorous tapings with the TODAY Show or NPR interviews.

First, hippos can be dangerous animals. In the wild, they are notoriously deadly to humans, killing an estimated 500 people every year in Africa. Statistically, they are the deadliest large land mammal on earth. They can often be aggressive. They move quicker than their size would indicate, and they have razor-like teeth, not to mention a girth that can easily crush a person. At the zoo, Tucker, Bibi, Fiona, and now Fritz may never intend to harm Jenna and others, but even an errant step, flick of the head, or accidental move from the hippos could cause serious injury. As a rule, keepers maintain a gate between them and their grown charges.

Second, taking care of hippos is a dirty, smelly business. When not in the water, hippos secrete “blood sweat,” which helps clean and cool their bodies as well as repel insects and act as sunscreen. This gooey, mucus-like substance that Jenna likens to the feel of a smushed avocado, also stinks and stains clothes. Then there are the “dung showers,” especially from Tucker. This sounds as terrible as it is. After defecating, hippos fling their tails back and forth in their poop to spread their scent and mark their territory. “It just goes everywhere,” Jenna says with a laugh. “It’s literally on the ceilings and dripping down my legs. We always joke and say it’s job security, but it takes a lot of work to clean—every day.”

Nonetheless, Jenna explains that she has the “best job ever”—and not just because of the uniforms that make moot picking out a daily outfit. After clocking into work, Jenna catches up with the team to see what is happening with the animals, then she gets going. She’ll then head to the hippo cove and say hello to Bibi and Fritz. She may massage their gums. They like that kind of thing. Since they are slowly introducing baby Fritz to Fiona and Tucker, they’ll feed them separately, a mix of hay and grain. Then Jenna will bring in Fiona and Tucker from the habitat to eat and allow baby hippo and Mom out into the cove.

Once they’re settled, Jenna heads over to the meerkats, which she also oversees. Much of her morning time there is spent filling in the tunnels that they dug the day before. She feeds them and heads back to the hippo cove. The cleaning and disinfecting begin in earnest. “We’re working in all kinds of weather, on holidays, on weekends. The animals need care, no matter if it’s Christmas or Covid or whatever.”

Then there’s the enrichment program for the hippos and meerkats, which Jenna loves. It’s important to keep their charges mentally and physically stimulated. For the meerkats, that may mean putting bugs in paper bags or plastic bottles, so that they must beat them around to get their food. The hippos are more challenging because they’re so big and destructive. Sometimes Jenna hangs up feed in 50-gallon barrel drums that have holes in the bottom, and they must knock it around to eat. There’s training as well, much of which is spent desensitizing them to touch, whether it’s to pick hay out of their teeth or administer cream to cut skin. For instance, Jenna will give Fiona lettuce treats if the famed hippo allows her to hold down her ears for six seconds.

Each has its own peculiarities. So far Fritz really enjoys the gum rubs more than anything else. For Fiona, she likes the smell of coffee breath, probably from her mornings as a baby being held by members of Team Fiona who had just gotten a caffeine boost. Now, Jenna will come close and blow in Fiona’s face. She’ll blow back and wriggle her ears in delight.

Afterward, there’s more cleaning and feeding and observing. It may not be her job to treat her hippos if they have a medical condition, but it is her responsibility to recognize if something is amiss. “That’s a big part of my job, just getting to know the animals and earning their trust. It’s fun.”

After thirteen years at the Cincinnati Zoo, Jenna has found her perspective and interests have evolved:

 “Honestly, starting off as a young college graduate, it was mostly about being around the animals and how cool it was to work at a zoo. Then I loved the education part of it, inspiring people with these animals. But now, as I’ve learned more about conservation and sustainability, that’s become so much more important to me. I always wanted to do native wildlife rehab. In my mind, that was saving animals and not just working with them. We have the manatee and gray wolf rehabilitation program here, but the truth is very few of our animals have the ability to be released back into the wild. And the wild isn’t always a great place these days. There are a lot of hardships, including habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, drought, starvation, and poaching. Obviously, we all wish these animals could live in the wild and be happy, healthy animals, but that’s not realistic.  

I always say that the animals here have a job, they are ambassadors. Fiona is the number one animal ambassador probably in the history of zoo animals. People love hippos because of her. She may not necessarily make like a hundred people change their careers and be hippo conservationists, but I'm hoping it makes them care about the animals in their backyard.

Over time, I've done a lot of fundraising and organizing events to aid animals. I also started a podcast Cincinnati Zoo Tales that focuses on the little actionable items each person can do to help. I think making a difference somehow, even if a small one, is important to me. That keeps me going because the animals are the best part of this job. If they're going to be here, we must give them the best lives possible and make them meaningful.”

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Hope you enjoyed. This profile was a joy to research and create.

In my other life—as an author of narrative history—I’m always pleasantly surprised by the longevity of some of my work. Twenty years ago, I began a book on Roger Bannister and breaking the four-minute mile. I’m very happy it continues to impact readers. Last week, I had a conversation with Terrell Johnson, creator of one of my favorite Substacks, The Half Marathoner. Here’s our discussion about running and shattering barriers. Hope you give it a watch/listen.

We’ll talk again in a week. As always. Same time, same band, same place.

Yours,

Neal