While trying to identify an animal in one of our historical images, I stumbled across an interesting tale of one frisky, fertile, and kind of famous pygmy hippopotamus that resided at the National Zoological Park for almost twenty years. One fascinating aspect of this hippo’s story is the rather inspired naming dynasty that was bestowed upon his descendants.
On June 10, 1927, the National Zoo received its first pygmy hippo, Billy, or William Johnson Hippopotamus if you want to be formal about it. Billy was gifted to U.S. President Calvin Coolidge by rubber magnate Harvey Samuel Firestone in 1927. Coolidge had an extensive collection of unusual animals, many of which took up residence at the Zoo. In 1929, a mate, Hannah, was procured for Billy. Prior to this, the model for many zoos was to exhibit a single specimen of an animal until it died and then replace it with another. This foray into hippo husbandry launched a new era of zoological parks as environments for the study of wildlife and animal conservation.
The first pygmy hippopotamus offspring was born to Billy and Hannah in 1931, but was very unfortunately trampled by its mother. The next two calves born also didn't survive. Hannah was criticized for being a terrible mother, although it should be noted that until the Pachyderm House was built in 1937, the pygmy hippos lived in the Lion House, which is probably a terrifying environment for an expectant mother.
In 1938 Hannah successfully birthed her fourth calf, the first to survive. After a little girl commented on the fact that the baby hippo resembled a big licorice gumdrop, the Zoo's newest charge was promptly named Gumdrop, thus beginning the Zoo's Gumdrop legacy. Hannah and Billy continued to breed successfully, and in 1940 another mate, Matilda, was acquired for him, with whom he also bred quite effectively.
Between 1938 and 1955, Billy sired 18 little ones with Hannah and Matilda, all of whom were named Gumdrop, followed by a roman numeral designating their place in the lineage. For example, 1950 brought us Gumdrop IX and 1953 was responsible for Gumdrop's XIII and XIV. Most of Billy's progeny were traded to other zoos for such exciting things as yaks, exotic cockatoos, and various species of the marsupial persuasion.
Billy, sire of Gumdrops I thru XVIII, passed away in 1955, leaving behind a legacy, and Gumdrop XVIII five months later. According to the National Zoo, the lineage of most pygmy hippos living in the U.S. can be traced back to Billy.
Unfortunately, there are no longer pygmy hippos at the zoo. With the opening of the Elephant Trail and the renovation of the Elephant House, the pygmy hippos were transferred to other zoos across the country.
- Record Unit 95 - Photograph Collection, 1850's- , Smithsonian Institution Archive
- Record Unit 365 - National Zoological Park, Office of Public Affairs, Records, 1899-1988 and undated, with related material from 1805, Smithsonain Institution Archives
- Record Unit 386 - National Zoological Park, Animal Records, 1887-1976, Smithsonian Institution Archives