The strange but true tale of the 130 year old tortoise that adopted a baby hippo.
In December 2004 unseasonably heavy rains on the East Coast of Kenya washed a family of hippopotamuses down the Sabaki River and out to sea. Locals from the town of Malindi, near Mombassa spotted the hippos and tried to coax them back to shore, but without success. A few days later on the 21 Decemebr a huge earthquake in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Sumatra caused a deadly tsunami. It was Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka that suffered the worst, but the huge waves also hit the East African coast, where they luckily didn’t destroy human lives but they did hit the hippos. When the waves had settled only one hippo was left – a baby stranded on a reef. Determined locals tried to rescue him but the hippo was wary of their offer of help and It took a combination of ropes, boats, nets and a rugby tackle before he was finally captures.
Haller Park, an animal sanctuary in nearby Mombasa, offered the baby hippo a home. They named him Owen after the man who had rugby tackled him and got him into their vehicle.
Having lost his family and gone through an intense storm and rescue Owne arrived at the sanctuary exhausted and understandably frightened and confused by his new surroundings. So when he was relased into his enclosure he immediately ran to the safety of an Aldabra giant tortoise, called Mzee, that lived at the sanctuary. The tortoise’s large shell and brown color made Mzee resemble a mother hippo, at least in the eyes of the baby hippo who cowered behind him for comfort and shelter.
130 year old Mzee was at first bemused by the baby hippo’s attention but that night Owen fell asleep next to Mzee. And soon the tortoise had formed an affectionate and intimate bond with the baby hippo.
Owen and Mzee would spend their days together in the pond, feeding and patrolling. Owen would nudge Mzee to come for walks, and Mzee would oblige, following the youngster round the sanctuary like a protective parent. He would play with him in the water and even stretch out his old crinkled neck so that Owen could lick him.
The two even invented their own language – not the usual honking that hippos use or the grunting and hissing of tortoise language – but a high pitched whimpering sound that is vocalized by one and mimicked by the other.
Over time Own became more tortoise than hippo. He changed his diet, eating leaves ad carrots the food of tortoises rather than grasses which hippos normally eat. He changed his sleeping habits too – wild hippos normally sleep during the day and are awake at night but Owen changing his patterns so he could spend more time with Mzee.
Their friendship lasted for over 2 years until the park keepers decided Owen was getting too big to continue to live with his adopted father and moved him to another enclosure. It’s not know what happened to their friendship after that.
This beautiful tale of an unusual animal bond is the subject of a children’s book – Owen & Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship. And also a documentary and a musical.