Christina Gorsuch, Coach of #TeamFiona

By Betsy Ross, Contributing Writer
Photos and video by Madison Schmidt

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a team of health experts from around the world to raise a prematurely born hippo. Welcome to Team Fiona, whose job it has been since January 24 to care for a hippopotamus calf born at least six weeks early and a third of the size of most to-term hippo newborns.

To say that Fiona has captured the world’s imagination, if not our hearts, might be an understatement. For Christina Gorsuch, curator of mammals at the Cincinnati Zoo, it’s a once-in-a-career experience measured in challenges and celebrations, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Her job is to make sure team members have the resources, the personnel and the knowledge they need to give Fiona the best care possible. In other words, a coach, of sorts, for Team Fiona. 

The fact that Fiona is at the seven-week mark (and more than 100 pounds!) is a milestone few would have thought possible after her mom, 17-year-old Bibi, gave birth early. 

“I saw her born on video and I ran in,” Christina said.  “Another keeper was here when I got here and she was so tiny I said, ‘Is she alive?’ He said ‘Yes, it looks fine. Small but fine.’ That in itself was very exciting for us.”

After the birth, then it was a waiting game to see how strong the calf was, and how Bibi would react to her newborn. 

“We gave Fiona really good footing and made sure she was warm and had her wits about her. Then we let Bibi back in and Bibi behaved perfectly. But it was clear the calf couldn’t stand up to feed and was really weak, and that’s when we made the decision to pull her out.” 

That decision set in motion the group now known as Team Fiona giving around-the-clock care for the tiny calf. “In the beginning, it was triage and all hands on deck,” Christina said, “and I don’t know when or if our veterinarians ever slept or went home, as well as our nursery staff.” 

Once care became more routine and stabilized, the team created shifts based on bottle feedings. The daytime task of feeding Fiona fell to the two primary nursery keepers, Michelle Kuchle and Dawn Strasser, with the night shift feedings going to Teresa Truesdale, all working seven days a week. 

“It was important to provide consistency with the feedings and to make sure the caregivers could pick up immediately any slight changes in Fiona’s attitude or behavior.”

As Fiona grew, so did her legions of fans who demand their #FionaFix every day. (Remember the outcry when the zoo announced the daily social media Fiona updates would be less frequent? Yeah, they won’t do that again for awhile). And the zoo has been transparent with her fans throughout the milestones, as well as the challenges of Fiona’s development—perhaps none as challenging as when she started teething. 

“In the early days we were all just kind of amazed every day that she was making it, so when she started teething, she just sort of crashed on us and that was really hard on everyone,” Christina said. “But everyone did a good job of remaining optimistic and realistic at the same time and we decided we were going to do our best to make sure she stays here and that we’ve done our best.”

And that’s when #TeamFiona truly became a village—or more specifically, a neighborhood, because it was the Cincinnati Zoo’s neighbors at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital who came through when Fiona stopped gaining weight, became lethargic and showed no interest in her bottle. “I can’t remember if was an offer that Cincinnati Children’s made to us by email or through Thane (Maynard, zoo director). They let us know they have this vascular access team and their job is to get catheters in veins you can’t get catheters into.   We needed that, to get fluids into Fiona.

“Our veterinary staff and vet techs are amazing with blood draw so they weren’t having trouble placing the cath, but she was so dehydrated and her veins were so small and weak that they kept collapsing. So I called the vascular team and they offered to come over and help and bring over their incredibly amazing equipment.”

It took about a half hour for the Cincinnati Children’s team to place the first catheter, which blew out after about a half hour. So the team came back to place a second one which lasted four days, just enough time to replenish Fiona’s fluids and nourishment and get her back on track with her development. 

“It was great to have that kind of support for her, because I think a lot of us were at the end of our rope—we just didn’t know what more we were going to be able to do for her.” 

Because as you can imagine, there’s no handbook for how to raise a premature hippo calf. A lot of what Team Fiona has done is based on their combined experience in raising baby animals at the zoo. “We also were taking some from the black rhino hand rearing book, and there’s an orphanage in South Africa that’s raised some orphan hippos. They gave us a lot of ‘this is normal, this isn’t normal’ information.”

Information, for example, on what kind of formula to feed Fiona. “In South Africa, they’re feeding whole milk and eggs because that’s what’s available to them. Here at the zoo we have several powdered formulas and fats and carbohydrates can be adjusted. But no one knew what hippo milk was supposed to be like.”

“The fact we were able to milk Bibi was great because the only other milk sample of a hippo was from 1955. Analyzing Bibi’s milk gave us an idea of what the formula for Fiona should be.” 

This past week has been a big one for #TeamFiona as not only has she reached 100 pounds, she’s been spending part of the night (midnight to 5 a.m.) by herself. As she gets bigger and stronger, of course the next logical question is, when will she be allowed to be with her parents in the exhibit area? Christina says, that’ll still be a while. 

“One of the challenges of neo-natal animals is their ability to regulate and maintain body temperature. For a preemie, it’s even more extreme. When Fiona was first born, the air temperature in the room had to be the same temperature we needed Fiona to be. So it was 98 degrees in her room so she could maintain 98 degree body temperature. When we started giving her pool time, the pools were 100 degree water. 

“We’re easing her into normal hippo temperature range—she’s currently in 85 degree water and 80 to 85 degree air temperature. So to be on exhibit many things have to happen, but one of the biggest things is, body temperature. The water in the hippo exhibit is 65 degrees and air temperature varies. She needs to be able to maintain her temperature and not shiver before we can even consider getting her out there.” 

The other factor in Fiona’s public debut is her compromised immune system. That’s why staffers are starting to feed Fiona hay pre-chewed by Bibi, to give Fiona a boost of her mother’s immune system. “Once we feel she’s strong enough,” Christina said, “introducing her to the great wide outdoors is the final hurdle.” 

For the millions (yes, millions) of people around the world who have watched Fiona grow and thrive, that moment can’t come soon enough. The way that Fiona has fascinated us, well, it’s something Christina hasn’t seen in her 20 years of working with animals. 

“I think we were at a time as a country, as a world, that we wanted something good, something purely good. Everyone likes a success story, and everyone likes an underdog. I think she was tiny and fragile and just pure energy, and it was love and dedication that got her here.

“As an individual little animal, she’s a sweetheart. She’s very expressive, she has a little personality, like all our animals do. Personally, it’s been an interesting experience for me as a manager because I’m making sure everyone has everything they need versus being there, but I still have been able to sit with her. It’s a once in a lifetime experience. She is a sweetie.”