By Jean Anselmi
Hippos are notoriously great mothers. Sure, even the female hippos occasionally spin their tails when they defecate to spread their faeces as far as possible. Also, they are enormous animals with very small brains and unpredictable behaviour. But if you’re looking for a protective mother role model, you could do worse.
In ancient Egypt, the male hippopotamus was regarded as an evil character of chaos, and they feature in superhero style hunting stories about Pharaohs and the fearsome foe.
Females, on the other hand, inspired hippopotamus goddesses including Taweret, who had the body of a hippo, the legs of a lion and the face of a crocodile. Taweret was one of the most widely venerated gods in ancient Egypt because she is composed of three animals considered the most ferocious defenders of their young. Tawaret was particularly associated with protecting women in childbirth and was extremely popular. Almost every home, especially one with young children or an expectant mother, would have had an amulet or figurine with her likeness.
I met a mother hippo once. Well, to be more accurate, I escaped a mother hippo. It occurred on a recent trip to South Africa, cruising three connected shallow lakes at Kosi Bay with a local guide and my family. Mostly monosyllabic and seemingly nonchalant in his frayed cap and reflective sunnies, our guide gazed into the distance while we chattered away. It all felt very casual, as we waved at a group of younger locals partying, fishing, and kayaking, before reaching the zone where we had been told there were ‘young ones’ among the resident hippos.
‘Hippo’ our guide pointed. Two hippos with a smaller hippo sitting on top of one of them could be seen more than 150 metres away. ‘Ooh’ my youngest one exclaimed. ‘Look at that one yawning’. Suddenly the guide was action-man personified, pulling hard on the steering, and revving the motor. Ok, we understood that a hippo opening their jaw wide was a threatening gesture, but we weren’t very close, why the panic? Our guide pointed back to where the boat had been and breaking the surface was a hippo. Pulling his shades back down and shaking his head he disclosed ‘dangerous, mother’.
Hippos don’t swim, but they can sink down and run along the lake bottom as fast as 8 km/h per hour. A hippo’s already dangerous territorial aggression is heightened when they have a calf with them. Our hosts at Kosi Bay told us that, of the estimated 500 deaths a year attributed to hippos in Africa, a significant number occur when hippos chase and overturn boats that have strayed too close to their territory. We saw more young hippos but kept our distance and had no further scares.
By the time we returned, it was dusk and most of the young guys had gathered around the fire on the shore. It was clear that the party had escalated and none of them would have been allowed to operate heavy machinery. Our guide shouted at a lone wobbly kayaker and pointed. We couldn’t see a hippo, or understand what our guide shouted, but the kayaker panicked, fell out of the kayak, and started running to shore waving his paddle above his head. ‘Hippo, dangerous’ said our guide. Certainly, but also incredibly funny. Cue Benny Hill music. The kayaker had no sympathy from his mates on shore, who found it hilarious and were less inhibited about showing it.
You can see hippos at Werribee Zoo, and even have a close encounter with mother and daughter, Brindabella and Pansy. This summer, Werribee Zoo is launching Hippo Beach Play. I’m pretty sure children won’t be chased by angry hippo mothers while playing.
We are incredibly lucky to have such a brilliant Zoo on our doorstep, with important conservation programs and awe-inspiring animals in carefully designed habitats. If you haven’t been for a while, consider taking the family over the summer holidays.
Hippos at Werribee Zoo – Summer activity
Children can splash into Werribee Open Range Zoo this summer with the launch of Hippo Beach Play.
Between December 21 and January 29, the Zoo’s Hippo Beach will come alive with water play activities, bubbles, sand play, music, and a variety of fun-filled games.
Zoo staff will also share an array of interesting Zoo stories to captivate and inspire the minds of animal lovers.
Activities will run between 11am–1pm each day and are included with the price of entry.
To book your ticket, visit www.zoo.org.au/werribee.