A Hippo and Tortoise Tale Owen the hippo and Mzee the giant tortoise are survivors. Owen braved a tsunami, and Mzee is 130 years old. They hang out at a sanctuary in Kenya. Dr. Paula Kahumbu tells a true tale of unlikely pals.
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A Hippo and Tortoise Tale

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A Hippo and Tortoise Tale

A Hippo and Tortoise Tale

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It sounds like a classic fable: baby hippo befriends wizened old tortoise. But the tale of this unlikely friendship is true. From Kenya, we're joined by Dr. Paula Kahumbu. She's general manager of Lafarge Ecosystems, which runs the sanctuary in Mombasa where the little hippo, called Owen, and his tortoise friend now live.

Hi, Dr. Kahumbu.

Dr. PAULA KAHUMBU (General Manager, Lafarge Ecosystems): Hello.

LUDDEN: I guess this story starts when the hippo, who's named Owen, showed up. Tell me how he came to be in your care.

Dr. KAHUMBU: Well, it started on the day of the Asian tsunami that hit Kenyan coast around 6 in the evening. And he somehow was stranded on the coral reef. We were called and asked if we could take care of him if he was rescued, which we, of course, agreed to immediately. And he came down to Mombasa in the back of my car and within minutes met the tortoise called Mzee, and they have been best of buddies ever since.

LUDDEN: It's incredible to see photos. You've got photos on the Web, and, I mean, they're snuggling, as much as one can imagine a tortoise and a hippo snuggling. There they are kind of close as they can be side by side.

Dr. KAHUMBU: It was actually quite incredible that at first the tortoise didn't seem to be too enamored by the hippo. But now we actually have seen the hippo licking the tortoise and the tortoise stretching his neck to get, you know, licked all the way down his neck. It's quite incredible. They seem to have an amazing friendship.

LUDDEN: Have you ever seen this kind of behavior before between a mammal and a reptile?

Dr. KAHUMBU: I have been studying animals for the last 20 years, and I have never seen anything like this. It is quite astounding.

LUDDEN: So how do you explain it?

Dr. KAHUMBU: Either little baby looking for attention, affection and protection. The tortoise responding is something that is very hard to explain because the tortoise is a very old animal. They're not that gregarious by nature. And yet this tortoise doesn't seem to mind the hippo. He actually follows the hippo at times. The hippo calls to the tortoise. I mean, there's just a strange kind of communication going on. I don't think we'll ever be able to explain it.

LUDDEN: Now we hear that there might be a new development in hippo Owen's future, something involving an older female hippo named Cleo?

Dr. KAHUMBU: Yes, we have--in Hollow Park, we have three hippos. They're all orphaned from one situation or another. And Cleo is a 13-year-old. She's currently solitary. She obviously wants friendship or a baby; she carries a log around on her back. And we think that, given the choice, he might choose to be with a hippo rather than a tortoise.

LUDDEN: And what about poor Mzee, the tortoise who now has apparently grown accustomed to Owen's company?

Dr. KAHUMBU: Well, a lot of people have raised that concern, and we don't intend to separate them, but what we want to do is make sure that Mzee is not at risk because Owen is going to grow to several tons. I mean, he's going to be a huge hippo. So we want to make an enclosure where he can choose to be with a hippo or with the tortoise.

LUDDEN: Dr. Paula Kahumbu has helped put together a children's book with photos of Owen and Mzee. You can find an electronic version of that book at our Web site, npr.org.

Dr. Kahumbu, thank you very much.

Dr. KAHUMBU: And thank you very much for that.

LUDDEN: And that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

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