City Desk

Hippo Campus: The National Zoo Should Bring Back Nature’s Most Mercurial Large Mammal

The National Zoo's three Asian elephants moved into the pachyderm equivalent of the Ritz-Carlton earlier this year, with heated floors; giant, nearly silent motorized doors; and a lengthy walking trail for "cardio." The only thing that appears to be missing from the $56 million Elephant Community Center is an infinity pool.

With the completion of the new building, which is part of the larger Elephant Trails project, elephants have joined pandas and orangutans in the National Zoo's aristocracy. It's hard to escape them these days: In the bird exhibit, a 10-minute walk from the elephant house, visitors come to the start of the elephant trail where a sign proclaims the elephant "a very big bird." Even the Elephant Community Center's most serious downside—the smell that comes from having three elephants in one building—has been transformed into a cutesy novelty, with a tube of faux dung balls displaying how much the elephants defecate in a day.

Yet for all of the elephants' shiny new accoutrements, one plot abutting the complex remains neglected. Its grass is unshorn, its graduated pool empty except for some mud. The enclosure, which once housed the zoo's last hippopotamus, is a reminder that the elephants' new playground didn't come entirely free of opportunity costs.

Under the cover of darkness, Washington's last hippo, Happy, left for the Milwaukee County Zoo in 2009. (The zoo blamed the nighttime departure on safety concerns.) The deportation, zoo officials said at the time, came down to space needs: Happy was in the way of the construction. This September will mark the zoo's fourth year without hippos. All that remains of Hippopotamus amphibius is the image of one on a floor tile in the elephant house.

Which is a tragedy. Humans have had elephants pretty much figured out for centuries: the sad eyes, the big ears, the dangling trunks. They like to play with balls and sometimes tires. Little ones run after the big ones.

Hippos, on the other hand, are more complicated creatures, and deserve a place in the National Zoo's educational mission. Their shambling locomotion and tiny ears are cute, sure, but they're also inexplicably vicious. A recent article in The Guardian described one man's experience trapped in an angry hippo's belly before being coughed up. The elephant—nature's most boring large mammal—would never swallow someone whole.

Having a hippo is certainly a hassle for a zoo. They require elaborate water filtration systems for their pools, and they eat about 80 pounds of food a day.

But hippos can have star wattage—if they're given the chance.

The National Zoo didn't respond to requests for comment about the community center and the future of hippos at the zoo. But whatever the zoo's plans are, now is the time for it to realize what other zoos are catching on to: People actually like hippos.
Compare the hippoless National Zoo to Egypt's Giza Zoo, which for my money—literally, because I had to bribe people to see some of the animals—may be the only zoo that truly understands hippos' appeal. In a line a dozen children deep, visitors wait for a chance to hand-feed lettuce to the hippos, who are in turn granted an enormous amount of real estate. While I wouldn't expect the National Zoo to adopt so hands-on an approach, the big crowds prove that people will be interested in hippos in the proper context.

Other zoos are also making strides to better accommodate—and therefore, better show off—their hippos. At the National Zoo, hippos were limited to a pool, some ground, and an indoor enclosure, meaning that often the most visitors would see were pairs of eyes, ears, and nostrils. More and more American zoos are fixing the water problem, according to Tim Wilde, curator of large mammals at D.C.'s expat hippo Happy's new home in Milwaukee.

More common now are hippo habitats that include glass viewing areas that show the underwater portions of the pool. (The Toledo Zoo pioneered this approach in the 1980s.) The more hippos can be seen, Wilde argues, the more they pull in crowds. "I think hippos can actually be pretty popular," Wilde says.

None of this is to suggest elephants don't deserve their newly luxe digs; the elephant house needed renovations. In 2006, the zoo had to put down one arthritic elephant, Toni, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals blamed the elephant house for its death. "I have never seen an elephant as crippled as Toni," one elephant expert told the Washington Post.

Instead of taking room away from the elephants, a new hippo exhibit could give the boot to another one of the zoo's animals. And there are many candidates to choose from.

The zoo's Small Mammal House is already skippable, thanks to its cavelike darkness and the general blahness of its animals. Why not remove it from the map officially? Better yet, ship off the farm animals. Why have cows and goats when you can have a hippo?

If Washington does get a new hippo, though, don't expect it to be Happy. After some initial shyness, he's getting along well with Milwaukee's two female hippos. "He seems to just be kind of hanging out," says Wilde. "You know...he's a hippo."

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  • hillary

    Hardly call the elephant enclosure Ritz Carlton, more like a prison. In the wild, elephants live in herds and travel at least 10-20 miles a day. It's like being stuck in a studio apt and never being allowed to leave. The zoo should send the elephants to a sanctuary. If you love animals, they shouldn't be kept in cages for human amusement, but allowed to remain in their natural habitat.

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  • jco71

    It's through zoos that people learn an appreciation for animals and hopefully can extend that to helping save wild animals and their habitat. The zoo and those elephants are doing a service. I distinctly remember visiting the National Zoo back in the 90s and being saddened by an elephant on a chill October day banging on the door trying to go back inside where it was warm. I've got no qualms about "Ritz" heated floors. That said, would love to see hippos back and hopefully that will happen one day. Heard the giraffes were "evicted" too but not sure if that's right.

  • EP Sato

    The zoo lacks hippos, and the zoo lacks giraffes. It also lacks a circular walkway, which makes it one of the least pedestrian friendly tourist locations in the world!

    Seriously, the Olmstead walk is pathetic. 1 MILE from the entrance to Amazonia and on the way back it's uphill?!? That means visitors to the zoo have to walk 2 miles to see the entire zoo from top to bottom and then get out. Most parks and zoos have a circular design so that you can see everything without having to double back.

    I take my daughter to the zoo several times a year. We'd learned to "cheat the system" by taking a cab to the Adams Morgan entrance of the zoo and working our way up from Amazonia.

    Anyone who goes back "up" the Holmstead walk knows two things: Orangutan crossings are flipping cool, and the sound of children crying "this is torture" on their way up the walkway.

    Sadly, even our "beat the system" method doesn't work anymore. With the addition of the Sea lion enclosure, there's a "loop" in the zoo that only goes halfway! There's literally no way to see every exhibit in the zoo without doubling back at least once. Lord help you if you want to go to the bird houses. Ironically, the zoo's got the access, but they don't want to invest in making the experience more visitor friendly.

    This all said, every time I mention I'm taking my daughter to the zoo, the animals I get asked about the most are the giraffes. Everyone seems to think the National Zoo's got them!

    Bottom line: the zoo's a hot mess in need of a major overhaul. It's not going to happen, so I expect to hear more tortured cries on the Olmstead walk again this and every summer ever after.

  • Rock Master Scott

    @EP - If you really can't deal with walking back up you can catch a shuttle from the kids farm to the panda plaza during the summer.

  • noodlez




  • Cuthbert B

    The Small Mammal House is "already skippable". I beg to differ. The SMH has the greatest creature of all, the golden lion tamarin (GLT), the light of the animal kingdom and the future of the race. Ban the GLT and you ban the world. Want to skip something? Skip the Washington City Paper, the last refuse of anti-Simianism.

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  • MS25

    Bah! Elephants are better than hippos. GET OVER IT. Also, a sanctuary doesn't mean that the elephant will be better because they don't necessarily meet the health care requirements. I'm sure these elephants are happier than the thousands that are constantly killed for ivory and because of palm oil plantation intrusions in the WILD. The new exhibition plans to have at last 10 elephants for the same reason you guys are mentioning above that they live in herds and need socialization. These spoil brats also eat better than I do. What is the problem then?

    Also, Happy the hippo has 2 girlfriends now... better than lonely at that pool.

  • Liz P

    The Zoo is addressing many of the concerns expressed by commenters with its new Master Plan (more info here:, including a loop path and tram to move visitors from one end of the zoo to the other. The old hippo exhibit was very outdated; creating a new hippo exhibit up to modern standards of care (like the Milwaukee Zoo has) would cost $50 million+.

    Since 2006, the Zoo has opened Asia Trail, redone America Trail, and created a state-of-the-art exhibit for elephants, allowing it to be one of the few zoos in the country that with capacity to house a multi-generational herd of elephants.

    It takes time to upgrade a 120+ year old facility--especially one that is dependent on the federal budget--and I think they are doing a great job.

  • PGirl

    The Zoo will gladly accept donations to build a Hippo House. Same goes for a Giraffe House. While you got that checkbook open you might as well buy the Kennedy Warren property so the land can be used to exhibit these new animals and any others you want. Problem solved!

  • Guest

    Are you suggesting that they should have kept elephants and hippos alike in inhospitable environments? I think this newspaper should remove the cavelike darkness that is your heart and the "blahness" that is your writing and replace you with someone who has some semblance of respect for all of Earth's creatures, not just the one you prefer. It takes time and money to expand, and it's far easier to re-home one animal who needs more space and companionship than it is to re-home three when so few zoos have the proper environments themselves.