Fiona the Hippo slowly bounds around her mother, her quarter-ton frame made weightless underwater. She trots toward the glass that separates her enclosure from visitors at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden and floats up to meet their gaze. Popping the top of her head above the water’s surface, she surveys the people watching her from beyond the pane.
“Oooooooooh, here she IS!” squeals a fully grown woman on the dry side of the glass. “Oooooooooooooh!!” the woman continues, spiraling from delight to full-on ecstasy.
Fiona shakes the water out of her ears, a probably unconscious physical response that the official @CincinnatiZoo Twitter account, in posting the video of this human-hippo exchange, refers to as Fiona’s “famous ear wiggle.”
“You’re doing incredible Fiona,” tweets one person in response, offering Kris Jenner-esque momagerial support from the digital sidelines.
“Our little water angel,” says another.
“Queen of ear wiggles,” replies one more.
The tweet, posted Sept. 13, has since been retweeted over 2,000 times and has accumulated almost four times that many likes. That might sound impressive, but it’s nothing compared to the 19,000 retweets and 69,000 likes that this Aug. 7 tweet (announcing that “Fiona’s neck rolls are getting bigger!”) received. These are the kind of stats that any social media influencer would kill for, and the bean-shaped diva with no last name got to that level without ever having to squeeze herself into a waist trainer.
Fiona’s rise to fame had humble beginnings: The Cincinnati Zoo began to post photos and videos of her on Jan. 24, as it does with a lot of the newborn animals who join its growing brood. But Fiona wasn’t just any newborn; she was a tiny preemie, born about six weeks before her projected due date, whose survival was touch-and-go. As the zoo continued to post updates, Fiona quickly developed a fiercely loyal following that spans Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, and also, um, me. Fiona slowly took over all but the most hardened corners of the internet I hang out in, and I, hungry for any kind of imagery that even approximated what it means to thrive in these uncertain times, welcomed the internet’s reigning cutest animal with open arms.
Within six months, the headlines started rolling in. “While Fighting The Odds, Fiona The Hippo Became A Social Media Star,” reported NPR. “We Need To Talk About Sassy Fiona The Hippo Queen,” said Sam Stryker here at BuzzFeed. Now there’s The Fiona Show, which airs through Facebook, and the upcoming Saving Fiona, a children’s book written by Cincinnati Zoo director Thane Maynard that’s set to publish in 2019.
Through it all, the only things that have really changed about Fiona’s life are that she’s gained a couple hundred pounds and learned how to not drown in deeper waters — the usual things that hippos do as they grow up. Like the Paris Hiltons and Pia Zadoras before her, Fiona hasn’t really done anything to deserve her celebrité, besides exist. It’s us, the viewers, eager to stan for something, anything, who have done the heavy lifting.
The cult of Fiona isn’t that hard to understand. I mean, she’s round. She’s cute. She’s an animal. It’s the internet. Her fandom should be pretty self-explanatory. And, to an extent, it is. But then, why isn’t my dog internet famous? Much like Fiona, he, too, can look like a potato when captured from the right angle. But Fiona’s appeal goes much deeper than her tuberous exterior. Depending who you ask, they might consider Fiona an icebreaker for discussions about wildlife conservation, a reprieve from toxic online spaces, an icon of body positivity, the queen of pop, a cute distraction, literally just a hippo — the list goes on. It’s not just what Fiona is that speaks to her fans. It’s what she can be.
Before Fiona could become a proxy for the life circumstances of beholders worldwide, she had to survive her own. Much like premature human babies, she suffered many complications as a result of her early birth. She was severely underweight, at only 29 pounds (hippo newborns usually fall into the range of about 55 to 120 pounds, as the zoo noted in its blog post announcing Fiona’s birth). “Typically, full-term hippo newborns are big animals,” Maynard, the zoo director, tells me. “You couldn’t put your arms around them. But Fiona was so small. She basically looked like a flattened football lying in the hay.”
Fiona initially had a lot of trouble with eating and digesting food, not to mention breathing and dehydration. The latter two health issues got so bad that Maynard had to call in a team of specialists from the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to hook the sickly calf up to a breathing tube and an IV. “Her keepers slept with her on their chests to keep her warm. She was so helpless and defenseless,” Maynard says. “She clearly wouldn’t have survived in the wild.”
A little over seven months later, Fiona now tips the scales at a healthy 475 pounds, well on her way to reaching the average adult female hippo’s weight of 3,000 to 3,500 pounds. She’s swimming with ease and sleeping alongside her mom, Bibi. She’s eating lettuce and other solids after months and months of cow’s milk. She has even started to get to know dad, Henry. (“At her pace,” the Cincinnati Zoo’s Twitter account thoughtfully notes.)
Maynard’s not sure if Fiona will always call this particular zoo home, but he certainly hopes so. “Everybody [here] loves Fiona,” he says, and it’s not hard to understand why he and all the handlers are so attached. The odds were stacked against this little baby bread loaf from the day she was born, and it’s only because of the zoo’s round-the-clock care that she was ever able to rise. Thanks to all the photos and videos, fans were also able to feel like they played a role in the recovery process, nursing Fiona back to health with the power of their thoughts and prayers. Maynard thinks that it’s the whole “saved from the brink” part of her story that has had fans faving and retweeting since day one.
“I feel oddly protective over her?” says Lauren, a 27-year-old PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center. Lauren doesn’t really consider herself to be a big “animals are sooooo cute” kind of person. But there’s something about Fiona that makes her want to see if Cute Overload’s still up and running. “Like, we need to make this world decent enough to deserve having Fiona in it. Because right now? We do not deserve her.”
This impulse to protect Fiona is an interesting new twist, considering the hippopotamus’s ancient symbolism. About 4,000 years ago, Egyptians began to associate female hippos with the goddess Taweret: a gloriously topless part-hippo, part-human, part-crocodile protectress of pregnant women and unborn children. Taweret–worship soon spread to Nubia, Crete, and other regions around the Nile where hippos once roamed.
“Basically, she is classified as a fierce but ‘good’ daemon who guarded the sun during its treacherous underworld journey and, by extension, the unborn child,” says Ellen Morris, a professor in Columbia University’s Department of Classics. “Judging from designs discovered painted on the abdomens of female figurines, pregnant women may have had temporary tattoos of knife wielding hippos on their stomachs.”
The people who worshipped Taweret probably wouldn’t understand the cult of Fiona’s emphasis on her cuteness, either, given the real-life threat that contact with an actual hippopotamus poses.
“Hippos [in the wild] are more dangerous than they appear,” says Maynard. “They run faster than humans, and even if they didn’t bite you, an adult weighs twice as much as my Subaru, so it’s important not to ever approach a hippopotamus out of the water.”
While Maynard does make a solid point, something tells me that a lot of Fiona’s fans would, in fact, gladly approach a hippo, or at least this particular one. Through a series of interviews with other fans, it became clear that Fiona’s overwhelming cuteness is one of the most common reasons for stanning the young river horse queen. Once we got past the obvious, though, it was fascinating to learn how Fiona could speak to so many different people in so many different ways.
Kat, a 21-year-old student living in Glasgow, loves the weight gain updates that the Cincinnati Zoo puts out every so often. For her, the posts are a kind of proxy for body-positivity messaging: “She’s always being celebrated for gaining weight or gaining more cute chin rolls, something we rarely see when we talk about actual human beings. I guess it’s just refreshing to see weight gain praised and encouraged, as opposed to criticized.”
Peter Moskowitz, 29, a writer and self-identified “hippo lover” from Philadelphia, sees Fiona as a refuge from the shit that stresses them out, both online and off. “A quarter of my timeline is people calling each other out, a quarter is just really depressing things about our current politics, and another quarter are things I don’t care about, like high school friends going on vacation somewhere,” Peter says. “The internet is a mean, terrible place, so anything that makes it a little less harsh is cool.”
Lauren, the PhD student, posits that watching Fiona grow might offer more nuanced psychological benefits as well. “We seize the opportunity to make allegedly neutral figures reflect our inner monologues, desires, anxieties, etc,” she says. “What is more innocent than a baby animal? It's different than meme-making because she's doing something different/learning something new each day, so we aren't seeing repeats of the same image of her over and over again, but participating in some kind of hippo Truman Show. We are collectively creating Fiona's consciousness.”
Ben Kesslen, 21, a senior at Tufts University, says he finds a lot of joy in Fiona, but certainly not without reservations. “Something I think a lot about is how the Cincinnati Zoo pulled off one of the most impressive rebranding efforts of all time,” Kesslen says. “Harambe really took the internet by storm during the summer of 2016, and people hated the Cincinnati Zoo. Now, they are universally beloved on the internet, and it’s like everybody forgot about what happened last summer. I feel like this must’ve been a coordinated rebranding effort, and that they have a really good PR team.”
Maynard denies that Fiona’s promotional strategy was in any way influenced by the events of May 28, 2016, in which the Cincinnati Zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response Team decided to fatally shoot a male silverback gorilla named Harambe after a 4-year-old boy fell into the animal’s enclosure. There is a social media strategy behind Fiona's daily posts, of course, and a team of strategists who internally go by the name of #TeamFiona, hashtag and all. But Maynard, who voluntarily broached the subject of Harambe during our interview, maintains that Fiona’s rise to fame was not specifically engineered to make the internet at large forget about one of the 2016’s most overused memes. The loving response to her, however, is a welcome change.
“The loss of Harambe was very devastating,” says Maynard. (The zoo welcomed Mshindi, a new male silverback gorilla, just last week.) “That was the other side of social media. They were eating us for lunch — eating me, personally. Everybody’s got an opinion, and they’ll tell you what they think it is.”
The two make for an interesting juxtaposition: Harambe, a bottomless pit of irony that people couldn’t stop jumping into despite the Cincinnati Zoo’s wishes, and Fiona, a peak of unabashed earnestness that fans eagerly scale at every opportunity. When I compare the two phenomena, I can’t help but agree with Maynard’s assessment that her rise has been “completely driven by Fiona” and the joy she inspires in people. Joy is certainly profitable — Michelle Curley, the zoo's communications director, says the zoo’s attendance this past summer was 22% higher than it was last year — not to mention commodifiable; look no further than the book deal, TV show, ice cream flavor, and special edition of playing cards that Fiona has inspired. Still, it’s joy all the same.
Of course, the warming glow that cultural icons inspire in their fans never comes without some risk of being burned, and even Fiona's shine isn't immune to all the darkness in the world. After years of witnessing the ways in which famous women — because it’s almost always a woman at the center of this dynamic — can go from being “QUEEN” to “CANCELED” over something like a resurfaced problematic tweet from five years before, I’ve grown wary of contributing to the discourse that helps put them on those pedestals in the first place.
I was recently explaining my Fiona stanning to a friend of mine in terms of it being a “safe investment” in the stan wars. “What’s Fiona gonna do, call someone a faggot?” I said. Cut to 12 hours later, when I wake up to a DM from another friend telling me that “they made fiona a cop!!!” with a link to an article by a local NBC news affiliate from Columbus, Ohio, headlined “Fiona the hippo named honorary deputy.” One girl’s patron saint of thriving and surviving is another’s police state princess, it seems.
Nevertheless, Fiona remains a reliable source of uncomplicated joy for me at a time when a reliable source of uncomplicated joy proves a rare and valuable resource. While I stress about losing my ACA-granted health insurance and all the lifesaving prescriptions it allows me to access, Fiona’s learning how to love her leafy greens. When I finally get home after a long day of being legibly trans on the subway, I scroll past a Fiona update on my feed. I’m working through little daily traumas so that they don’t overwhelm me; she’s shaking out her neck rolls. Perhaps she’s gained four pounds. Every day proves a triumph for Fiona — or at least that’s the narrative I’ve mapped onto her. As the world goes up in flames, a smol bean sprouts from the ashes. By extension, so may we all. ●
Harron Walker is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared on VICE, Teen Vogue, Vulture, Into, Mask Magazine, Playboy, and elsewhere.