CINCINNATI — Michelle Curley’s husband does not like the baby-hippo tattoo. He tolerates it, but he does not like it. “He is not a fan,” Ms. Curley said, shoving a lock of her paprika-red hair aside to show me what’s inked onto the concave scoop of her upper back.
Ms. Curley was standing in line for lunch on a recent afternoon at the Base Camp Cafe, the russet-colored cafeteria at the entrance to the Cincinnati Zoo’s Africa exhibit. Every Formica table in the place was packed: with schoolchildren in matching T-shirts, middle-aged tourists with giant S.L.R. cameras slung around their necks, and a mélange of zoo employees wearing branded fleeces and muddy boots. The air smelled of canola oil and charred coffee.
The cafe is the closest eatery to the hippo tank, and therefore the closest to Fiona, the 10-month-old hippo who bounces around inside it. Over the last year, Fiona has become something of an international cause célèbre, largely because of the efforts of Ms. Curley, the zoo’s communications director, and her four-person team, who started posting Fiona’s every move to social media from the day she was born on Jan. 24 (prematurely, and perilously, but more on that later).
Fionamania has swept the country. Videos of her twirling around in the water, Rubenesque and graceful, rack up millions of views online. She photo-bombed a local couple’s engagement photo, and it wound up on “The Tonight Show.” The popular Cincinnati ice cream purveyor Greater’s made a “Chunky Chunky Hippo” flavor over the summer — a toffee base with salted peanuts and caramel truffles — that sold out at the zoo every day it was available. A local T-shirt company, Cincy Shirts, screen-printed a small batch of tees with the words “Feeling Hip” along with a cartoon rendering of Fiona in February, and has since shipped 30,000 Fiona-branded products (including tees, stickers, magnets and now Christmas sweaters featuring Fiona in a Santa hat) all over the world.
Fiona starred in her own 7-episode reality show sponsored by Facebook. The zoo’s director, Thane Maynard, sold a children’s book called “Saving Fiona: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Baby Hippo” to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, scheduled for the spring of 2018, with proceeds benefiting the animal’s care. The Cincinnati Reds are planning to have an official “Fiona Day” at the ballpark next summer, complete with commemorative hippopotamus bobbleheads. Twitter fans have become obsessed with Fiona’s flatulence. She has become America’s Large Adult Daughter, its triumphant baby queen, its reigning diva with the skin texture of a wet avocado.
Being at the center of a 24/7 hype machine for a 500-pound (and growing) starlet can be exhausting, and Ms. Curley got her tattoo as a way to commemorate the intensity of the past year. “I didn’t think any experience would ever top this experience,” she said. “I’m never going to regret getting it.”
“We think this is just Michelle’s way of one-upping her groupie status,” said Chad Yelton, the zoo’s vice president of marketing. “She has all the merch, the tumblers, the calendar. If there’s something with Fiona’s face on it, she has to have it first.”
When Fiona was born, no one expected her to survive. Bibi, her lumbering, obstinate mother (“Fiona gets all of her diva tendencies from her mom,” said Christina Gorsuch, the curator for African mammals) gave birth six weeks early, and the baby weighed only 29 pounds. Most viable hippos weigh between 55 and 120 pounds at birth; premature infants rarely pull through. “In the first six weeks, there was at least once a week when we were sure she was going to die,” said Ms. Gorsuch, who was wearing a pair of hippo-shaped stud earrings in her office next to the antelope pen. “I kept telling the keepers to call me in the middle of the night when the inevitable happens.”
She was kept in the bestial equivalent of a newborn I.C.U., with round-the-clock care that included visits from local doctors from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital who located her tiny veins for an IV during a nasty bout of dehydration. Scientists at the zoo milked a hippo for the first time — “we had no idea what was in hippo milk before now,” Ms. Gorsuch said — so that they could recreate the formula for Fiona’s bottles. Every day, between January and May 15, when Fiona finally was able to promenade around the hippo tank for the public, seemed to bring a new health crisis. All of this was documented on social media for the world to see.
Overnight, Fiona became a symbol of resilience and positivity. Buzzfeed ran listicles of her bravest moments, calling her a “sassy, unbothered, unproblematic queen.” NPR ran a national report on her swelling celebrity status. One website called her “The Only Good Thing Left in This World.”
“Fiona is one of a kind, there’s no doubt about it,” said Thane Maynard, the director of the zoo, who talked to me in the zoo’s giant boardroom, featuring a lacquered mahogany table and several figurines of rare African mammals. The room would not have felt out of place in Disney’s Adventureland. Mr. Maynard was wearing a safari shirt and khaki pants, held up by a belt featuring a giant silver buckle of an elephant’s head. “Around here I’m known as the King of Khaki,” he said.
He knew Fiona was an international phenomenon after going on his yearly exotic birding expedition to the Black Rock Lodge in rural northern Belize. Fiona was only 6 weeks old at the time. Mr. Maynard overheard two strangers from California talking at the lodge about how grateful they were to have Wi-Fi in the jungle so they could get their “Fiona fix” on Facebook. “That’s when I knew, boy, she really is a rock star,” he said. “It’s Fiona’s world and we are just living in it.”
It was shortly after he returned from Belize that the call came from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Mr. Maynard said yes right away. “Look, this idea of telling a hopeful story is important to what zoos do,” he said. “We don’t need to be in the bad-news business. People love a story where everything looks dark and then heroes save the day. Fiona came here in the year 2017, a year when we need a lot more good news. And there she is, our good-news emissary.” (It should be noted that the Cincinnati Zoo was in particular need of good news in 2017, given that its last year was dominated by controversy about killing an adult gorilla after a child fell into his habitat.)
Mr. Maynard says that other zoo directors have begun to approach him about how he turned Fiona into the sensation she has become. The publicity team’s decision to share updates on the hippo from the beginning was unconventional; most zoos wait to share information on troubled animals. “Now we are getting asked at conferences about how we did it,” Mr. Yelton said. “We tell people, you have to find your Fiona, whatever that may be, and just tell the story.”
Ms. Curley said, “We have tried to say we are going to stop posting about her every day, but we get 100,000 commentators telling us they must have updates. Everyone is so invested now.”
“People tell us all the time that Fiona is something everyone can agree on,” said Amy LaBarbara, the zoo’s coordinator for marketing and events. “We have heard from countless people online that Fiona has been uniting the United States. We hear from people going through chemo that tell us she is the only bright spot in their day.”
Angela Hatke, the zoo’s communications coordinator, said: “Every time we post a photo of her weight, we get messages about body positivity. We aren’t saying these things. These are the fans coming up with it on their own.”
The fervor around Fiona makes sense, given the polarized, tense, mass anxiety swirling around the country this year. When times get rough, we tend to project our hopes and fears onto animals. It happened during the global economic meltdown, when the baby polar bear Knut became the undeniable star of the Berlin Zoo, raised by hand by his trainer after his mother, Tosca, rejected him in 2006. (Knut’s entire short life was blanketed by controversy — are polar bears meant to be raised by humans? — and ended in tragedy, as he slipped into the water and drowned in front of horrified zoogoers in 2011.)
As the animal philosopher Steven Cave wrote in an essay about Knut’s death, the bear’s story serves as a poignant cautionary tale about celebrity animals: “We might search for nature in zoos, but what we find are our conflicting ideas of nature reflected back at us. Those who believe we can live in harmony with the beasts and so redeem ourselves will try to catch the eye of the next animal superstar.” Of the bronze statue of Knut that now stands in the Berlin Zoo, he writes, “It is not Knut the Dreamer, but Knut as we dream him who is realized in bronze for future generations to chirp and coo over.”
In other words, it can be dangerous to overhype and anthropomorphize wild animals, as we project our fantasies and desires onto them and turn the narrative into a heartwarming tale that serves to reaffirm our own sense of goodness. The animal becomes a meme, a product, a unit of sale. As the late critic John Berger wrote of celebrity creatures living in zoos: “This reduction of the animal, which has a theoretical as well as economic history, is part of the same process as that by which men have been reduced to isolated productive and consuming units.”
And yet, many of Fiona’s keepers insist that she courts and adores the attention. “She absolutely knows she is a star,” Ms. Gorsuch said. “I’ve been in this industry over 20 years and I’ve never seen or experienced or heard anything like this. She loves the camera. She has the biggest personality. And yet she is clearly a hippo. When we reintroduced her to her parents, she knew how to be a hippo immediately. She has an incredible ability to balance her little worlds; being an animal, and being in public.”
The day I visited Fiona, Cincinnati was chilly and overcast and only a few fans were lingering around Hippo Cove, the $7.5 million enclosure that opened in 2016 and offers visitors the rare opportunity to view hippos as they frolic underwater. Fiona was out and spinning, like “Fantasia” brought to life. But where the vintage Disney version of hippos in tutus now feels more like a cruel, shaming joke, the experience of watching Fiona pirouetting felt joyful and buoyant. A roly-poly imp, she swam underneath the 8,000-pound body of Bibi, her mother. Fiona’s father, Henry, was inside, having suffered for months with infection and weight loss, an old man in hippo years at 36.
Two weeks later, on Halloween, the zoo announced his death. “He was also smitten with Bibi, the zoo’s 18-year-old female, and followed her everywhere,” the zoo wrote in a statement. Fiona “was the sixth calf that Henry sired over the years and, because she survived against all odds, has become a celebrity and an ambassador for the species. He couldn’t have left a better legacy.”
Fiona’s celebrity has undeniably been good for human business. A local brewery, Listermann, began making a #TeamFiona New England I.P.A. in June, and the first edition of the beer sold out within a day. (At least 10 people camped out in front of the brewery, which is a local hangout for zoo employees, to get a case.) Jared Lewinski, a brewer there, told me that they are now on their fifth edition, and plan to make a special commemorative ale for Fiona’s first birthday in January. After pledging to donate 25 percent of all beer sales to Fiona’s treatment, the brewery has now raised over $30,000.
Darin Overholser and Josh Sneed, the founders of the upstart Cincy Shirts, have hit it big with their Fiona merchandise, which they made with the blessing of the P.R. team at the zoo. “At first, we thought of doing it as a ‘Jaws’ parody,” Mr. Overholser said. “That was a terrible idea. When we came up with ‘Feeling Hip,’ it just clicked, and our T-shirts were on the NBC Nightly News. We just have one guy making them in a basement, and the demand has been insane.”
Mr. Overholser told me that he is thinking of expanding the Fiona gear into a full-fledged, national brand. “We made polo shirts with a hippo embroidered on them, like Lacoste,” he said.
Mr. Yelton, who fields all requests for Fiona collaborations, told me that he has had to turn down hundreds of offers for hippo-branded ideas. “People ask us if Fiona can show up at their home and garden show,” he said. “It’s like, ‘No, that’s not going to happen.’ Facebook came to us about the show, which was a perfect fit. I’m surprised Hollywood hasn’t come to us about a film. I feel like an agent with a very famous client. I feel like I represent Beyoncé. When she comes around the corner in her pool, crowds lose their minds. Every single time. People cry. People fly across the world to just catch a glimpse.”
“When people hear we’ve held her, they want to touch our hands,” Ms. Curley said.
Ms. Gorsuch also said that she herself has become notorious in local circles as the “coach of #TeamFiona” thanks to the Facebook videos. “People get crazy,” she said. “I’ve been hugged by many strangers.”
Almost everyone I spoke with in Cincinnati seemed to have an opinion on the blessed child. Keith Gavigan, the proprietor of the Symphony Hotel, an inn in town, runs overnight zoo tours on the side and treasures his glimpses of Fiona at dawn. “She’s a ham for sure,” he said. “My tip is to go in the rain, because she will still be out, and you can beat the crowds.”
As the zoo prepares for the long winter — Fiona cannot go outside when it is under 50 degrees — Ms. Curley said that they are planning to continue live-streaming the hippo’s life as long as the public has an appetite.
Elena Passarello, the author of this year’s “Animals Strike Curious Poses,” an essay collection about the history of famous beasts, said that celebrity animals will always reflect the times they are in. “Like Humphrey the Humpback and Springer the Orca and Mike the Headless Chicken, every critter I’ve come up with who ‘made the news’ was written about in some way that allows their story to coincide with a particular, of-the-moment human concern,” she said. “Even Pizza Rat!”
“It’s an easy leap to a more overt connection between a particular story — a wayward whale, a preemie hippo, a lost baby, a miracle rooster — and whatever struggle, triumph or challenge that the group of humans who see the animal are collectively experiencing,” Ms. Passarello said. “In terms of Fiona, I think something similar is happening in regards to her life and the ‘over-love’ she’s garnering. It’s as difficult to love and understand a human as it is to process their loss. A human baby comes with it so many opportunities for peril, for evil, for disappointment and failure. A human birth points to a future we elder humans know we probably will not understand and might be pushed out of. But a baby animal — especially one that we’ve put in a cage of human experience, as we’ve done for Fiona, holds more limited possibility. Fiona’s youth is in this precious box, and we can love it unconditionally because there are so few possibilities to it.”