Maybe you’ve heard about this one hippo named Fiona. She has gentle doe eyes, Shrek-like ears, nubby little hooves, and resplendent neck rolls. She lives at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden with her mom, Bibi, and her dad, Henry. She was was born there prematurely about nine months ago, a seemingly lifeless blob that was immediately hooked up to a web of IVs and nasal catheters. There was a real concern she wouldn’t make it but, after a series of procedures and some quality time in a kiddie pool, she has grown into a happy, healthy, approaching-500-pound hippo. These days she is doing what hippos do best: eating salad, frolicking in the stream of a hose, and bobbing around in the water.
I know these details about the Ohioan zoo animal not because I sought them out, but because they have organically surfaced in my feeds on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram over the past nine months. In addition to being a hippo, Fiona is also an online celebrity with considerable reach. Cincinnati zoo caretakers have offered real-time updates on her progress via their website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram since she was a fetus in the womb. And nine months after her birth in January, the zoo has doubled its overall Facebook following, earned an additional 40,000 followers on Twitter, and over 70,000 more on Instagram.
The images from the zoo’s social media have been used to generate countless memes that glorify everything from her sass to her weight gain. Her likeness has been recreated on playing cards, T-shirts, beer labels, and cookies. Graeter’s, a Cincinnati-based ice cream company, created a new ice cream flavor, “Chunky Chunky Hippo,” inspired by her. A local Ohio sheriff’s office made her an honorary deputy. Refinery29 recently described her as “the only good thing happening in 2017.” In the premiere of Fiona’s made-for-Facebook video series, which has been viewed over 4.4 million times, one zookeeper described seeing visitors cry the first time they saw her in real life.
“This year I’ve traveled all over the world—went to West Africa, Central Africa, Central America, to really remote places to watch wildlife,” Cincinnati Zoo director Thane Maynard said in the same episode. “There is not a place I have been, that if somebody sees my zoo hat or zoo logo, that someone doesn’t ask me all about Fiona. In the middle of nowhere. People know about her. She’s probably the most famous animal in the world.”
Fiona’s stardom speaks to the awesome power of cute animals, an unshakable principle of the internet that’s practically baked into the brands of high-traffic sites like BuzzFeed. As zoos have built their social media presence, they have naturally capitalized on their access to wildlife to draw interest. Frequently this translates to pairing factoids with simple, entertaining narratives about their animal kingdoms’ romances, procreation, and pregnancies. It’s like reality TV, but for zoos (except with less flattering angles and lighting). And like the Kardashians, zoo communications staff must also navigate how to publicly portray the less cheery aspects of their social media stars’ lives. Typically that involves disease, injuries, death, and dangerous escapes. Earlier this spring, Animal Adventure Park in Harpursville, New York, made one of its giraffes, April, famous by livestreaming the birth of her calf. But when April had “a small twist of her leg,” the park surreptitiously pulled the feed. The news reportedly spurred an outpouring of worried emails and social media comments. “We appreciate concern but the bogging down of email servers and other platforms is the exact reason the giraffe cam will need be [sic] pulled,” Animal Adventure wrote in a curt Facebook note. “It is interfering with normal park operations and preparation for opening; at a period when our resource of time is limited and cannot be hindered.”
But no wildlife-centric institution better embodies the double-edged sword of a high-profile social media presence than the Cincinnati Zoo. With Fiona, it was given a redemptive chance to wield the social media tools that, just a year ago, were used to embroil its institution in a nightmarish online controversy. Because before there was Fiona, there was Harambe.
In May 2016, a 3-year-old boy fell into a fenced habitat at the Cincinnati Zoo, and was promptly swept up by a 440-pound silverback gorilla named Harambe. Within 10 minutes, the zoo decided to shoot the animal with a rifle. Harambe died. The boy was saved. Maynard was quick to call a press conference, explaining why tranquilization wasn’t an option, and expressing heartbreak at the loss of the gorilla. But as smartphone footage made its way online, the incident took on a life of its own. Just as with previous viral animal deaths, the faceless masses of Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit looked for someone to blame for what they saw as the senseless death of an innocent, endangered animal. They landed on both the child’s mother and the zoo with vengeful fury. Random celebrities like Piers Morgan and a guitarist from Queen felt the need to offer their opinion. Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump weighed in. The outrage was so intense that it inspired the meme-makers of the internet to whip up a fresh crop of images and jokes that paid tribute to Harambe’s legendary internet fame, and simultaneously mocked the public’s sympathy toward an animal of whom it was previously unaware.
Three months after the incident, the Cincinnati Zoo still couldn’t escape the weight of the meme. Anytime its official Twitter account posted an innocuous tweet—say, an advertisement for half-price admission or something about how yellow pond turtles have eight vertebrae—the zoo’s replies would be flooded with replies like “Harambe loved discounts” or “Harambe had eight hearts.” In late August, someone broke into Maynard’s personal Twitter account, changed his profile photo to an image of the deceased gorilla, and tweeted #DicksOutForHarambe, an absurd catchphrase that had become inexplicably popular. The following day Maynard condemned their behavior: “We are not amused by the memes, petitions and signs about Harambe,” he said in an email to the Associated Press. “Our zoo family is still healing, and the constant mention of Harambe makes moving forward more difficult for us.” Soon after, the zoo deactivated its Facebook and Twitter accounts, essentially wiping itself from the internet.
Eventually, of course, the Cincinnati Zoo came back. It had to, as a spokesperson commented at the time, if it wanted to connect with the public. First came the Facebook account, and then, in October, Twitter. Its first tweets, which alluded to noncontroversial topics like World Okapi Day and Halloween, were met with hundreds of replies about Harambe. But the zoo’s three-person PR staff powered through the holidays, and by January they were excited to share the news that Bibi was pregnant, and their caretakers were the first to capture a Nile hippo ultrasound that confirmed a fetus. (Meanwhile, a handful of comments on the Instagram announcement declared that “#HarambeLovedHippos.”) According to Angela Hatke, the zoo’s communications director, it never even occurred to her team that something could go wrong with the hippo birth.
“Bibi’s a young, healthy hippo, we didn’t even think—PR-wise—that she would have her baby early,” Hatke told me. “We were kind of just, thinking of it as routine. It’s a common thing that we share.”
So when Fiona arrived two months before her due date at a mere 29 pounds, Hatke and the rest of the team had a difficult game-time decision to make: Should they post about the birth, and risk yet another public outcry if another of their zoo animals died? After conferring with the animal-care team that was monitoring Fiona around the clock, they decided to go for it.
“As far as marketing we were like: We just want to be transparent,” Hatke said. “Cincinnati is amazing and their support for their zoo is amazing. It could be good or bad but we have to tell them everything. And that’s kind of when the attention started. Everyone was just hoping and rooting for this baby. It escalated from there.”
In the early days, Fiona’s caretakers would scrupulously document Fiona’s progress and send Hatke and her coworkers images, which they would promptly post online. And with every update—whether it was a cautiously optimistic summary of Fiona’s early nursing issues or her continued effort to stand—Hatke and her team received an outpouring of support from a growing online fan base. Soon enough, lingering Harambe trolls that followed the zoo’s accounts were outnumbered by a handful of gushing hippo lovers. (News coverage of Fiona left out the story of Harambe all together.) Some people’s messages included their own premature birth stories, others shared that they had been premature babies themselves. And as Hatke’s posts began to focus on Fiona’s weight gain, she even noticed that Fiona memes were taking on a tone of body positivity.
remember when Fiona the hippo invented the body positivity movement bc me too https://t.co/aUKgDALoFt— mother mallory (@malloryofficia1) June 22, 2017
“It’s been pretty cool that she’s been able to give hope to family and parents,” Hatke said. “Usually it’s just thanking us for having something positive, because it is a hard time in the news and the media with everything going on. If we can help bring any positivity and hope, that’s even better.”
While Fiona’s Facebook series aired its final episode this week, Hatke and her team were faced with a new development in the zoo family. Fiona’s father, Henry, mysteriously lost his appetite and began losing weight. “Our care team is doing everything possible to help him, including offering him his favorite foods,” the Cincinnati Zoo wrote in an Instagram post on Tuesday. “Please keep Henry and his care team in your thoughts.” Almost immediately, swaths of followers flooded the comments with prayer hand emoji and hearts. Fiona’s adorable rise to fame—and subsequent help in combatting what once seemed be an inescapable blot on the park’s reputation—may have offered a helpful parable of feel-good adorableness versus hate for all the world’s zoo social media managers. But virality is fleeting, and for the people managing the public image of an animal kingdom, every narrative is a moving target.