Humpty, A Special Little Hippo

Published on the 27th of July, 2023

One’s time on earth isn’t a measure of the lives they touch. Humpty was with us for the briefest of months, but she made such a splash. In the short time she was with us, this little hippo lit up our world and captured the hearts of people the world over.

Not all of our stories have happy endings. Humpty’s life was cut suddenly and tragically short, but rather than sinking into the loss, we find ourselves reflecting on the bright life she led. Pilfering a plump pillow off the sofa and covetously settling atop it for a nap, chomping through watermelon with unbridled delight, or porpoising through the water, ramping up the drama for her adoring audience — this is how I remember Humpty.

This month, meet a special little hippo who is immortal in our memories.

– Angela Sheldrick

Humpty, A Special Little Hippo

Days before Christmas, Humpty splashed into our world. Instead of arriving in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, she was heralded in by a bed of flapping fish, then ferried beneath a helicopter. We weren’t prepared to have a little hippo in our midst, nor could we have expected the extent to which she would capture all our hearts.

On 22nd December 2016, I received a call about a tiny orphaned hippo in Kiunga. This remote area sits on Kenya’s northern coast, tucked between the ancient port of Lamu and the Somalia border. She cut a lonely figure, bogged in a drying mud hole with only a school’s worth of flapping fish for company. Her rescuers waded through knee-deep mud, darted her with a tranquiliser, swaddled her in a wet blanket, and carried her to the waiting helicopter.

There was insufficient space aboard the Robinson R44 helicopter for such a rotund passenger — even an infant hippo carries some serious heft — so Humpty was packaged like a gift and slung beneath the aircraft. The final leg of her journey unfolded within a plane, which delivered her to our Kaluku Field Headquarters. We chose this destination because of the pod of hippos that reside in the nearby Athi River, their throaty grunts lighting up the still night.

In our decades of operations, all manner of orphaned wildlife have come into our care — but a hippo was a first! We initially thought we were receiving a male, which Daphne christened ‘Humphrey.’ Upon arrival, we discovered she was in fact a female, but the name was too perfect to give up. Instead, we modified her name to Humphretta ('Humpty' for short), and thus our little mascot of Kaluku was born.

Humpty’s first night with us was very memorable. While we scrambled to create accommodations fit for a hippo, Frans, our Field Operations Manager, volunteered his bathroom as a temporary bedroom. Humpty and Frans spent a long, sleepless night together. She was quite frightened and feisty, but Frans refused to leave her side, even as she battered the plumbing and bared her gummy mouth in his direction. By morning, the little hippo was completely obsessed with him.

Of course, Frans already had a full-on job to attend to and couldn’t dedicate his entire day to hippo parenting. As we looked for a Keeper for Humpty, a young recruit in the Canine Unit immediately sprung to mind. Joseph clearly had a special way with animals, and we wondered if this would translate from anti-poaching operations to raising orphaned wildlife. Our suspicions were correct, and he proved to be a natural. Humpty adored him from day one.

Meanwhile, Humpty’s home was soon complete. On the fringes of Frans’s lawn, we built a cosy stable on the shore of a paddling pond. Hippos are known for their love of water, but Humpty’s enthusiasm took it to the next level. She immediately slipped beneath the surface and then spent hours bobbing around enthusiastically, cavorting in and out of the water like a stout dolphin.

In fact, Humpty’s love of water extended into nighttime hours. Joseph kept the door of her stable open, so she could slip out for nocturnal dips on a whim. Returning inside, she would make little noises (which sounded something like “mmm mm mmm”) to let him know that it was time for bed.

But occasionally, Humpty’s nocturnal wanderings took her even further than her paddling pool. As Joseph recalls, “Sometimes, she would say, ‘Let’s go to Frans’s house!’ and take off across the lawn in the middle of the night. At other times, during the day, she would lounge on the beanbags in his living room, her small head propped up so she could see Frans or me resting in a nearby chair. When she decided the adventure was over, she would take off across the lawn and return to her pond or stable.”

Humpty was very attached to her stable, because she shared it with two special roommates: Sala the lesser kudu and Baba the duiker. Humpty was particularly fond of Sala, who was rescued shortly after her own arrival. They used to stroll around the veranda and garden together, touching noses affectionately as they investigated the various plants and flowers.

But mostly, Humpty was attached to Joseph and Frans. When Joseph was home on off, Frans would take over parenting duties. She slept on the floor next to his bed, but only after pulling down a pillow to rest her head upon — Humpty appreciated her creature comforts!

Frans remembers one particular night when a leopard was making its distinctive sawing noise outside: “Humpty was very worried about the leopard and could not fall asleep. I reached my hand down, so she could suck on my fingers. Almost immediately, she fell into what I thought was a deep sleep, lying beneath my bed with my hand in her mouth. But how wrong I was! The leopard made a loud noise, and Humpty sprang up with a start, taking the whole bed into the air with her. Needless to say, neither of us slept much that night.”

Humpty was an interesting blend of action and relaxation. She loved to explore and quickly mapped out her favourite haunts across Kaluku. The little hippo saw any unlatched door as an open invitation, strolling into bedrooms, kitchens, offices, and living areas alike, making herself right at home. She often led Joseph on excursions to the pilot’s house nearby, where she would scour the sitting room for cosy areas to enjoy. After testing various cushions on the seats and sofas, she would pull down the fluffiest one and have a short rest.

Hippos have a valve in their throat which automatically shuts to block liquids from getting into their lungs, so bottle feeding was initially quite a challenge. However, Humpty soon got the hang of it and became a very hearty eater. On special days (of which there were many), Humpty was treated to watermelon, which she blissfully chomped through with her gummy, toothy nodules. She enjoyed playing football, although she wasn’t above cheating: When she tired of the game or thought she was losing, she would simply pick up the ball in her mouth, often deflating it and claiming victory in one fell swoop.

Her confidence was off the charts, but Humpty was a very demanding young charge. As Joseph recalls, “I couldn’t leave her for even one minute, or else she would start to make her noises. One afternoon, I was getting my lunch while she was napping in the pool. She was resting beneath the water, as hippos do, so I went to quickly fill a plate. But then I heard a loud howl, almost like a wolf — not a noise you imagine would come from a hippo. Humpty had discovered that I was gone and was very upset with me! She came charging over to the kitchen and remained by me like a shadow.”

And then, tragedy struck. As unexpectedly as she arrived, Humpty left us. On the morning of 5th July 2017, Humpty took a mysterious downward turn and died. We were shocked; the night before, she had been cavorting around with her usual joie de vivre. An autopsy revealed that the culprit was a twisted gut, a sudden condition that can claim the lives of creatures big and small. Loss is a heartbreaking but inevitable reality in our line of work, but we were absolutely shattered by Humpty's death. Kaluku had lost its mascot.

Humpty was only with us for six months, but she touched all our hearts so deeply. One of my favourite memories is of my mother sitting in a chair beside Humpty’s pool while she cavorted in the water. Daphne was 83 at the time, Humpty just a few months old, but both had such a zest for life.

Daphne left this world the following year. I like to think that Humpty was there to greet her into the great beyond, alongside all the other special souls who were taken before their time.

Field Notes is a monthly newsletter written by Angela Sheldrick to share a unique perspective into our field projects and the people behind the cause. The email edition includes an interview with a member of the team, which is exclusively available to Field Notes subscribers. To receive the monthly email edition of Field Notes, please sign up here.

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