April 03, 2013

How Gertrude the Hippo led me to the Burke

By Norah Farnham
Guest Writer

When I was hired as the hippo zookeeper at Woodland Park Zoo in 1999, the hippos were the first animals I was assigned to care for, and I have been with them ever since.

Though I had worked as a zookeeper for 13 years at two previous zoological facilities, I had never worked with Common, or Nile, Hippos. I was instantly fascinated by 36-year-old Gertrude (Gertie) and 21-year-old Water Lily – and so were the zoo visitors.

The hippopotamus is one of Africa’s most iconic animals, and a favorite among zoo visitors. Their immense size and aquatic habits make them one of the most recognizable and popular animals, and one that people expect to see when they visit a zoo.

Since hippos commonly live only into their 40s, and hippos are highly social animals, it was not long after I became the hippo keeper that we began discussions about adding a third hippo to our group, as company for Lily when Gert eventually passed. In 2003, we welcomed 2-year-old Guadalupe as the newest member of our little herd.

Water Lily, Gertrude, and Guadalupe
Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo
As the years passed, we noticed natural changes in Gertie's health and mobility as arthritis pain in her joints began to take its toll. She was less active and showed increasing signs of discomfort. To ease her aches and pains, we worked with the zoo’s veterinarians and nutritionist to start Gertie on a weight loss plan combined with a daily dose of glucosamine chondroitin for her arthritis (just like humans use). Of course there were good days and bad, but Gertie always seemed to bounce back and get out to entertain the throngs of admirers that gather around the hippo pool every day.
Gertrude (Gertie) the Hippo
Woodland Park Zoo

Unfortunately, the bad days began to outnumber the good. By March 2010, Gertie became less willing to leave the comfort and buoyancy of her pool, and showed clearly that walking was becoming increasingly painful. With our careful daily observation and record keeping, we were faced with the inevitable fact: this time 47-year-old Gertie was not going to rally to meet her fans again, and humane euthanasia was the final decision.

For a zookeeper, the euthanasia of one of “your” animals is certainly a low point, and the most difficult part of the job. However, realizing it is in the best interest of the animal, we strive to make the actual process as stress-free as possible. With the cooperation of many zoo departments, primarily the veterinarians and the animal health staff, we let Gertie go in the most stress-free and gentle manner possible, surrounded by her dedicated staff of keepers.

As with any animal death at the zoo, a necropsy, or animal autopsy, was performed at the Animal Health Department, with the assistance of various ancillary staff, including several staff and volunteers from the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.

Since 1913, Woodland Park Zoo has partnered with the Burke to donate remains of deceased animals to become part of the museum’s collections where they can be used for education and research about the species. Once the examination of Gertie was complete, Jeff Bradley, mammalogy collection manager at the Burke, made plans to clean and prepare Gertie’s bones to become part of the permanent mammals collection.

At this point, I was invited by a friend to go see Gertie’s skull, which was nearly done with cleaning at the Burke. I didn’t know how I would react to seeing it and was very anxious at first, but eventually my curiosity got the best of me.

We met Jeff in the mammal collection, and the moment I saw the skull, I was fascinated and intrigued to see how Gertie was ‘living on’ at the Burke. We had a wonderful and informative visit with Jeff, and when he mentioned how much his volunteers help in the collection, I immediately asked, “Can I be a volunteer here, too?” (I was hooked!)

Gertie's skull in the mammalogy collection
Cathy Britt/Burke Museum
One of my first duties as a Burke volunteer was to help with the ongoing cleaning and preparation of Gertie’s skeleton. The normal cleaning of animal bones involves several steps. First the entire skeleton is placed, bone by bone, in what is known as the “beetle colony,” a large container where Dermestid, or flesh-eating, beetles go to work cleaning the bones. Next the bones are thoroughly rinsed with water. But because hippos have naturally high levels of oil in their bones (similar to marine mammals), Jeff turned to a different technique to clean Gertie's bones: mortality composting.

Basically, the process would involve enveloping the skeleton in a high-carbon material to generate temperatures hot enough to ‘melt’ the oil from the bones. The perfect place to help with this process was back at Woodland Park Zoo in the area known as the “Zoo Doo” yard, a rich, composted mix of organic food scraps and animal manure that is sold by lottery to eager gardeners across the Seattle area.

The Zoo graciously separated and dedicated a large pile of ‘doo’ that would be used for the sole purpose of cleaning Gertie’s skeleton.

Volunteers in the Zoo Doo yard
Photo by Chandler Cole

A team of volunteers and I began carefully interring Gertie’s skeleton, piece-by-piece, in the compost mixture. Dan Corum, (a.k.a “Dr. Doo) the Zoo’s compost and recycling expert, oversaw the burial and monitored the temperature and moisture content of the process over the next 6-10 weeks, until, at last, Gertie’s bones were clean and free of oil. Success!

After a final rinse, the entire skeleton was ready to become part of the Burke’s mammalogy collection. I started the tedious process of marking each individual bone with the specimen’s unique five-digit catalog number so it can be included in the database. A hippo’s body contains more than 200 bones, so numbering each of Gertie’s bones took several weeks for me to complete. 

Norah holds one of Gertie's tiniest bones
Cathy Britt/Burke Museum
It’s worth mentioning the drastic range in size of hippo bones. Gertie’s cranium is nearly 30 inches long and tips the scale at 27 pounds, her femur weighs more than 7 pounds and measures 17 inches in length, and her pelvis weighs more than 14 pounds and stretches 27 inches in each direction. Then on the small scale, her ‘wrist’ and ‘ankle’ bones that are only about the size of a peanut. It’s incredible to see them all next to each other.
Now that Gertie’s skeleton is part of the mammals collection, it is available for researchers to study and learn from. In fact, Dr. Kelly Helmick, associate veterinarian at Woodland Park Zoo, was able to see and draw new insight from Gertie's skeleton to help care for other large animals at the zoo:
“While we strongly suspected that our hippo Gertie had advanced age-related arthritis, the full extent of her condition was only available to us after the Burke Museum provided her skeleton for review. Having this information will better assist veterinarians in interpreting clinical symptoms in large animals, such as hippos, with suspected age-related arthritis. Through our relationship with the Burke, the veterinary staff of the Woodland Park Zoo is able to perform three-dimensional skeletal examinations that provide a foundation for differentiating between normal and abnormal anatomy, interpreting clinical and radiographic changes, and implementing surgical and other therapeutic techniques for a variety of zoo animals.” - Dr. Kelly Helmick
Jeff Bradley examines Gertie's skull with Dr. Kelly Helmick
Photo by Chandler Cole
Last year, Jeff extended a very special invitation to the staff of Woodland Park Zoo to go on a ‘behind the scenes’ tour of the Burke’s mammal collection. Gertie was one of the star attractions of this three day event, and many zoo staff were thrilled to see her again. These days Jeff brings out Gertie’s skeleton during special events, such as Members’ Night and Meet the Mammals, so the public is able to see the skeleton and learn about hippos.

It’s been three years since her death, and I still see Gertrude the Hippopotamus every week as a volunteer at the Burke. As difficult as Gertie’s death was for me personally, I am so happy that, through her, I have developed a relationship with the Burke Museum. I’ll always remember Gertie, and am so thankful that she opened up this world to me.

Norah in the Burke's Mammalogy collection
Cathy Britt/Burke Museum