BROWNSVILLE — Rio Grande Valley residents have a sure bet to see one of the world’s most elusive and hard-to-study animals on the planet at the Gladys Porter Zoo.
As Senior Veterinarian Thomas W. DeMaar explains, the pygmy hippo introduced to the public at the zoo last Wednesday is native to a few western African countries, including Liberia, and is nocturnal and so rare that experts aren’t even sure how many exist.
“It wasn’t discovered until the 19th century and not identified until the 1940s,” DeMaar said outside of the exhibit, where the pygmy hippo’s mother, Clover, watched closely over its calf, as dozens of young school children stretched there heads as far as they could over the fence while standing on tiptoes to catch sight of the animal, which was born five months ago.
DeMaar said he’s not entirely sure of the unnamed calf’s gender yet, but is leaning toward female.
“It is considered to be threatened because of all the human impacts to its ecosystem,” DeMaar said.
The pygmy hippo lives in waterways found in thick tropical forests in countries like Liberia, Togo and Guinea and is threatened by habitat destruction, waterway changes, being hunted for bush meat and climate change, DeMaar explained.
The animals are vegetarian and live off of leaves, ferns and fruits that fall to the forest floor. At the Gladys Porter Zoo, the pygmy hippos, which include the newest edition, its mother, Clover, and its father, Juanito, eat alfalfa pellets, carrots and spinach.
While zoo-goers admired the pygmy hippo as its mother carefully guarded it in a cool, wet corner of its enclosure, DeMaar said zoo staff is careful not to approach the calf.
“We did not weigh the baby because mom is very protective of baby,” DeMaar said. “Mom disapproves of us cuddling the baby. She’s always right there with it. They are inseparable.”
But as it grows, like all children, the pygmy hippo will become braver.
And so far, the yet-to-be named pygmy hippo is bringing joy to zoo-goers from Cameron and Hidalgo counties.
“Everybody thinks it’s adorable,” he said.