Story elements by Tim Norland
Written by Martha Huett
I can't live in a world without Fiona. She fills my heart and sparks my joys. She is the closest, even closer than my beloved husband, to being the subject of an oft-expressed endearment, "You are my everything". Yes, indeed, she is my everything, and I love Fiona.
We first met in the Cincinnati Zoo. I had gone to Ohio to lead a group of fellow socio-psychologists in a round-table discussion on the limitations and distractions of emotional manifestations during societal strife and crises. I understand that might sound like a bunch of psychological mumbo-jumbo, so please, allow me to translate. In this discussion, my colleagues and I simply examined the social and psychological data collected and analyzed after a national crisis. Whether the crisis be strife, like war. Or economic, like a recession. Or medical, like a novel virus. That's what we looked at. Then we sat around all smug-like with our degrees and expertise and addressed the obvious conclusion of all the data. In layperson's terms, the conclusion of our little round-table would be that the single, most beneficial tool to overcome a national crisis is mutual cooperation. Pretty easy. Fiona had already figured it out and totally agreed. But she did have some remarkable insight to add to our conclusive statement, which was surprising in itself, given her age.
Fiona was just 18-months old when I first met her. And was she ever the cutest chubby cherub! National Geographic had described her as such during a period of time called Fiona-mania. She was also extraordinarily popular and had her own webcam, Facebook page and fan club, among other celebrity extras. It was easy to see why.
Fiona, a Nile hippopotamus, was born on January 24, 2017, six weeks premature and weighing only 29 pounds. Everybody was frightened for her. She couldn't even stand up to nurse and was whisked away from her mom and cared for by veterinary specialists with the help of a neo-natal team from the Cincinnati Children's Hospital. Her mom Bibi, a prim yet inexperienced primigravida, was actually milked during their three month separation so baby Fiona could be bottle fed with hippo mother's milk. Obviously, and in spite of a rocky start, young Fiona made it and was thriving at nearly 900 pounds when we made our first mutual introductions.
It was very strange. To this very day have I never conversed so deeply with any animal, human or otherwise. To say I was surprised or astounded to find myself naturally immersed and fluent in the extraordinary language of hippos was an understatement. I was floored.
The hippopotamus has two eyelids. I know, I know. What that has to do with human to hippo (and vice versa) communication is seemingly irrelevant. Let me explain. The outer eyelid of a hippo functions much like ours - a shield to protect against debris and light. The inner eyelids, however, are like membranes and are transparent, allowing the hippo to see while navigating her underwater environs. It's a pretty nifty bit of anatomy; kind of like built-in goggles. Without them though, it would've been just another day at the zoo for Fiona and me.
I had arrived in the city in the morning and had headed straight for my hotel for an early check-in. I freshened up from my flight and while breakfasting, read a colorful brochure about things to do for fun in Cincinnati. The most exciting tourist spot seemed to be the zoo which was blessed with the world's most popular baby, Fiona. Oh sure, I had read about her and had seen pictures of her on TV and online. That Fiona is adorable is undeniable - what with her wiggly, rounded ears, her big brown eyes and short lashes, her huggable cherubic baby fat, her tubby columnar legs and her darling little smile. She induces exclamations of cooing and baby talk from us all. You should have heard the crowd the day I was there. She was doing underwater somersaults; her buoyant baby's body tumbling head over heels while her exhausted mom watched on. "Aww!" "Mommy, can I have her?" "She's so cute!" "Goo goo ga ga!"
Anyways, I was standing there by myself after Fiona had wrapped up her playtime to snuggle tightly against her mom for a nice, long nap. The crowd had moved on. I stood staring at her sleeping form with such love and warmth that I think I may have projected some kind of vibe toward her. She woke up, slipped into the water and bobbed over to the see-through glass enclosure wall that separated our worlds. We were eye to eye. And there, projected on her inner eyelid, I saw it.
After several months of intense study and collaboration with wildlife experts and animal psychologists, I was able to satisfy my need to clearly understand what I saw. During that time and since, I have travelled back to Cincinnati and conversed with Fiona numerous times. About many, many different subjects. Bio-molecular acceleration. Philosophy. Epidemiology. Library Science. It would be more than fair to say that the volume of baby Fiona's intellect and knowledge is encyclopaedic.
What I saw projected on Fiona's transparent inner eyelid that first day we connected in the zoo was nothing short of heart-stopping. She showed me what could best be described as startlingly clear video images of her species' evolution that had occurred over 50 million years ago. Hippopotamuses are the closest living relative of the wise and mighty whale. The sentience and intelligence of the whale is no longer disputed. And after what I experienced with Fiona, hippos should certainly be in that exalted category or beyond. Also, after the precious performance of whale breaching that Fiona put on (which, by the way, went viral early in 2020), the world could clearly see her shared cetacean ancestry.
It took me about a week of rest and two visits with my own therapist to recover from the initial shock and assuage my worries of insanity. It helped. I was resolute and clear-headed when we met the next time and from then on.
I had questions. Boy oh boy, did I have questions for Fiona. Like, how is it that we can understand each other? More importantly, how is it that you know all the answers to every question on Earth? She started with a self-reflective crash course on hippo anatomy, then advanced into hippo sociology.
The average adult hippopotamus is physically sedentary and weighs around 3,000 pounds. Yet, she eats only about 1% of her body weight which is not commensurate with her accumulation of bodily fat. Fiona pointed out that this fact is important to remember for later.
Fiona also explained a bit of hippopotamus physiology that she said would help me understand the hippos' place in the scheme of things on Earth. Sweating blood is a myth, she said. Hippos excrete a liquid from their skin that is reddish in color. This valuable physiologic reaction to heat and sun delivers a mucous that acts as a sunblock, moisturizes the skin and provides protection against germs. Unknown to human scientists, it also provides a conductor for the neural exchange of information. Fiona told me to remember this tidbit for later, too.
The lecture on hippo sociology really opened my eyes on how looks can be so deceiving. How someone as cute as a hippopotamus can be surly and cross most of the time, even dangerous some of the time, was news to me. Fiona assured me it was so. She even showed me video examples on the transparent lens over her eye. I saw a scene where adults were fighting so viciously that a baby was crushed between them. And another, where two humans were walking peacefully back to their village and were killed by an adult hippo protecting his territory. Fiona noted that the hippopotamus is the single most dangerous animal to humans on the planet.
Fiona also explained how anti-social hippopotamuses are to each other as well. Hippos hang around in pods of ten individuals up to 100, but the only close bonds that are formed are between a mother and her daughter. It was at about this point that Fiona told me to pay attention and be ready to formulate on my own (if I could), an extrapolating question relative to the discussion.
Hippos are individualistic, unfriendly and keep to themselves, yet they group together. Hippos have no natural enemies, except for the ignorant, moronic humans who hunt them for ivory and 'sport'. Nevertheless, they crowd together at night when the hunters are too cowardly of the dark to come out. In fact, the entire pod will press so tightly together throughout the night, even sleeping on top of each other, that the ones under the pile of sleeping hippos are sometimes crushed or suffocated. As horrifying as that last fact was, my mind reached back then raced forward. I blurted out, "If hippos aren't protecting themselves because there are no threats, why do they sleep so tightly as a group?"
Fiona answered directly and succinctly, "Cooperation is why. In this case, cooperation for the exchange of information."
It took me a couple of blank-eyed blinks and a crescendo of brain silence, before I could say, "Explain."
I've repeated and expounded on Fiona's explanation since then in the many T.E.D. talks, interviews, lectures, and book publications I've engaged in throughout my career. Because of Fiona, I have become a star in my field, a better socio-psychologist to my clients and an adoring, loving mother of two now-grown daughters. It's an explanation for the ages.
Hippos are the archivists of the world. Information from 50 million years ago to the present is stored in their body fat. They eat a small amount relative to their weight because the specialized adipose tissue generates its own energy. The collection and dissemination of information occurs flesh-to-flesh during sleep among the hippos with their sweat acting as an electrical conductor. The advancement of knowledge and information is so paramount to hippos that, in spite of their antipathy toward one another, they cooperate as a whole and will even risk death for it.
It is now said that to kill a hippo is to burn down a thousand libraries. Fortunately, both are now strictly outlawed. My youngest daughter, a budding neuroscientist, couldn't be happier. She's good friends with Fiona's eldest daughter and the two spend hours discussing topics in her chosen field of study as well as those outside it. That's probably how she was able to finally find the answer to the first question I asked of Fiona many years ago: How is it that we can understand each other?
Turns out that when Fiona was in utero, her mom Bibi was the first hippopotamus in history to undergo an ultrasound. Hippos use subsonic vocalisations to communicate. When these waves from the fetus, Fiona, collided with the ultrasonic waves of her mother Bibi's procedure, a communication conduit was formed between hippo and human. Its formation and operation are still under research.
So, yes. I love Fiona. She's given so much to me, this country, this world. Fiona was with us during the devastating viruses sweeping the globe in the 20's. She saved billions with her calls for cooperation through social distancing. Fiona was with us during the aliens' first contact in the 30's. She diverted their threatened annihilation with worldwide calls for cooperation in laying down arms and weapons. And in the 40's, Fiona saved us from total extinction with her calls for the world's space agencies to cooperate and divert the path of a storm of asteroids. We barely made it. Millions perished, but the world is quieter and gentler now. The Earth has finally settled.
Fiona and I are old ladies now. We're next door neighbors, too. We grateful humans built the most kick-ass habitat for the revered Fiona and her extended family pod, complete with acres upon acres of lush African grasses, a slow-moving river with real water and miles of muddy banks. I, on the other hand, live with my husband in a modest cottage near the grounds. It's filled with pictures of Fiona, her children and our daughters. And a lot of love. For science. For our fellow man, woman and child. For our planet. For all creatures. For Fiona.
I'm going to be seeing her for lunch today. If there are any questions or advice you want from Fiona, please let me know. In the spirit of cooperation, I'll ask.