Hippopotamus Lives as a Pampered House Pet
| May 2nd, 2008|
To come upon a hippopotamus in the wild would be sobering and cause for serious alarm, but a South African family has become surrogate parents to a hippo in their house as their pampered pet. Jessica the hippo prefers her home creature comforts to a life in the wild as she wanders around their house, eats at their table, drinks sweet coffee, and even gets a massage before she goes to bed.
Shirley and Tonie Joubert rescued the abandoned hippopotamus from a river bank on their property in Hoedspruit, Limpopo, South Africa after a devastating flood when she was merely hours old, and still had the umbilical cord attached to her in March 2000.
Traumatized and in dire need of her normal milk, the former game ranger created a substitute for the orphaned hippo.
The Jouberts’ hand raised her — not wanting to leave her to dire fate of being eaten by crocodiles or starving to death — fully expecting her to return to the wild as soon as she was old enough. They’ve spent the past 8 years raising Jessica, and the world’s only tame hippo has never left since.
“Hippos tend to stay close to their mothers for many years, so her chances of survival in the wild were slim. We decided that having rescued her we had to follow through and bring her up.” Tonie said. “When she was younger she was just like a human child.”
“I don’t know whether she thinks I’m a hippo or she thinks she’s a human. But we have the most fantastic bond.” When Tonie calls her name, Jessica honks out her own greeting in return.
“I can’t imagine life without her. She’s the child I never had.” said Shirley.
Jessica seems to believe she’s part of the family and regularly forces her way into the house. “We try to keep the door closed, but she pulls down the handle and lets herself in.” Shirley adds.
“She’s already broken a bed and a sofa, and it can be very messy because she’s not house trained.” It’s become a bit of a problem because she’s now broken the Jouberts’ bed 3 times.
“Of course, when she started getting bigger and had broken a couple of beds we had to put a stop to that, so she’d sleep out with the dogs. We never forced her to stay though. The river is right there and she’s always had the option to wander off. Sometimes she disappears for a couple of days, but she must be pretty happy here – she always comes back!” says Tonie.
Jessica’s favorite room is the kitchen, where she rests her huge snout on the counter and flips open her jaws at any hint of food.
Eating is a big part of Jessica’s routine as she consumes a 1/10th of her body weight daily. At only 35 pounds (16 kilos) and 12 inches (30 centimeters) in height when they first found her, Jessica grew in leaps and bounds both in weight and strength, and has the potential to reach up to 6600 to 9900 pounds (3000 to 4500 kilos).
The monster mammal gets sweet potatoes and a bowl of wheat bran for breakfast, her favorite meals of corn on the cob and cabbage, regular snacks of dog biscuits which she shares with the Jouberts’ English bull terriers, drinks up to 20 liters of weak coffee a day which Tonie bottle feeds to her, and is even allowed to eat from the kitchen table.
In between meals Jessica wallows in the river which runs through the Jouberts’ land where she frequently swims.
She is free to leave but chooses to stay. She never leaves the Jouberts’ side, and even watches television with them at night.
Indeed, Jessica does have human traits, and recognizes about a dozen words in Afrikaans. The most important trigger word is bek, meaning ‘mouth’ and if pronounced just right, she approaches the bridge, jaws wide open ready to be fed a tasty treat.
Hippos — the third heaviest land mammals in the world — favor the cool of water holes in the day but venture out to eat grass and fallen fruit at night.
But Jessica seems to prefer the shade of a detached villa and pulls her considerable weight by trimming the lawn outside with her prominent teeth.
And when Jessica fancies a swim in the river, Shirley accompanies her down to the bank and swims on Jessica’s back, arms around her neck.
Jessica’s best friends are the Jouberts’ dogs, Za Za the Rodweiller and the Bull terriers who fight for a share of the biscuits.
Tonie says, “Jessica loves the dogs. She plays in the garden with them, and they keep the birds from bothering her. Every time one flies near her, the dogs snap it away with their jaws.”
If she’s swimming in the river and Tonie calls her, she heaves herself up the bank and follows him.
Being a big girl now, giant male hippos have turned up on the river’s edge fronting Jessica’s human home. “They come down here like kids coming to call for her and she’ll go off and swim with them for a while. She’s really so human sometimes it’s unreal!” says Tonie.
She became friendly with one of them, a 10-year-old bull they named Charlie who lived with them for 18 months. But when he was shot by a neighboring farmer, it killed off their hopes of finding Jessica a mate and sending her back into the wild.
“Jessica is so trusting.” says Shirley. “Our constant fear now is that the same fate as Charlie’s may befall our precious Jess, the gentlest creature on Earth.”
Jessica has become quite the celebrity in town, starring in documentaries for Animal Planet, National Geographic and Discovery Channel, drawing tourists from near and far, keen to add hippo stroking to their repertoire of travel tales.
But not everyone is happy to see her, as she has also helped herself to their neighbor’s crops and the farmer has threatened to shoot her.
Neighbor Sybrand van Vuuren said while he ‘would not like to shoot Jessica,’ it would be hard to tell her apart from other hippos.
At night she frequently staggers out back to the river for a mud bath, then meanders back to the house wet and dripping slime, and either settles down on the veranda beneath a duvet on a mattress or plunks herself down on the couple’s bed.
Shirley — a former beauty therapist — frequently gives the house hippo a soothing massage before she drifts off to sleep.
Tonie used to work as a game ranger in the Luanga National Park, then began working in the anti-poaching Department for Nature Conservation in 1976.
He’s now in semi-retirement, which means he has plenty of time to spend with Jessica.
One of the most formidable and dangerous animals on earth, hippos kill more people than any other mammal in Africa. But despite her vast bulk and big teeth, Jessica seems anything but deadly.
But not even 20 years as a game ranger could have prepared Tonie for the amazing bond that developed
“No one has ever tamed a hippo before.” said Tonie.
“She is amazingly gentle. Our friends’ 8-year-old daughter slipped in the water recently and Jessica immediately swam over to her and nudged her back on to the bank.”
“Jessica is an amazing creature.” said Shirley. “She’s not dangerous at all.”
“We never realized just how intelligent hippos are.”
Says Tonie, “Some people have told me I was wrong to save Jessica. They say you have to be cruel to be kind and that I should have left nature to go its own way.”
“But that would have guaranteed she ended up in a crocodile’s stomach.”
The Jouberts’ do accept visitors for Jessica daily from 10am until 12pm and again from 3pm until 5pm. If you’re in the area outside these hours give Tonie a call at 015 795 5349 and they might be able to fit you in.
There is a nominal fee of R50 ($7.20), which goes towards the rather pricey upkeep of a growing hippo.
Where you can find them:
You can learn more about Jessica at Jessica the Hippo website.
Their eyes and nostrils protrude, allowing them to see and breathe while otherwise submerged in the water.
The hippopotamus typically sleeps during the day and maintains activity at night, but they’re not strictly nocturnal. Hippos may cover up to 53 miles (33 kilometers) of water each night in search of food. They eat mainly the grasses along the shores of the rivers they inhabit, but they have been seen grazing up to 5 miles (3 kilometers) from the shoreline.
Hippos are extremely graceful in the water, despite their clumsy appearance on land. Their gravity allows them to sink to the bottom of rivers and literally walk or run along the bottom.