The common hippopotamus is a massive sub-Saharan semi-aquatic mammal of the family Hippopotamidae whose closest relatives are the whales and porpoises, though to be honest they hardly keep in touch anymore. The name for this largely vegetarian animal comes from the Greek words hippos, meaning ‘horse,’ and potamus, meaning ‘river,’ which yields ‘horse river’ and gives a pretty good indication as to why people stopped learning Greek. The hippo is identified by its barrel-shaped torso, enormous head, hairless body, and stubby legs, as well as by obviously being a hippo.
More than any other animal, the hippopotamus manages to combine adorable comedy value with sheer terror. Unlike the lions, tigers, bears, cobras, and Great White Sharks, all of whom look like animals that will kill you, the hippo is bald and fat. Instead of fear, your first impulse upon seeing one is to dress it in a tutu and invite it to perform at your kid’s birthday party. But as too many people have found out the hard way, this is a very bad idea that will ruin almost any get-together.1 For their adorableness belies the fact that hippos are killers. In so many words, in Kingdom Animalia hippos are the guy in his mid-40s who lives alone and juggles his time between his jobs of part-time party clown and full-time serial killer.
He always kept to himself.
As with human serial killers, hippos usually seem harmless and can be remarkably charming, yet won’t miss a chance to bite you in half with their massive tusks. Also like human serial killers, precise statistics on how many victims they’ve killed are unavailable, though, again, some experts believe them to be the world’s deadliest animal. And as with human serial killers, hippos don’t actually float, but instead run and paddle along the bottom of lakes and rivers while holding their breath for up to five minutes, and then try to capsize boats of sightseers.2 However, unlike human serial killers, they can also hear underwater, so don’t gossip about them while they’re down there because they’re totally listening in and will then turn it around and guilt you into letting them kill you.
Let’s talk about your parents.
Before giving in to your burning desire to hug a hippopotamus and put lipstick on it and try to see if you can ride it – consider these facts: a male hippo can weigh up to 8,000 pounds and be up to fifteen feet in length, while their two-foot tusk-filled mouths can crash down with several thousand pounds of pressure when these fiercely territorial animals feel like defending their space, which they always do.3 Also consider that hippos live in groups of up to 40 called a pod, herd, dale, or bloat. This part is less important though.
So I shouldn’t try to put a red bandana and tiny cowboy hat on them?
Nature was clearly messing with us when she made hippos so profoundly cute. The massive head, the pear-shaped body, the stumpy limbs – everything about a hippo begs us to feed them treats and knit them whimsical little sweaters. And if you’ve ever seen a hippo lumbering over land at up to 30 miles per hour, well, you’ve known pure bliss. Just don’t try to get them to play fetch.
Whatever you do, don’t look behind you or you’ll fall over laughing and be killed instantly.4
The obvious temptation towards failing the hippopotamus (for being so darn cute to the extent that we have to constantly remind ourselves how they are waiting to kill us) is obviated by a few factors. First, hippos have been known to bite crocodiles in half, and in this regard they’re sort of like a serial killer who kills bad people, though, unlike Dexter, it is more than happy to kill you too because you happened to wander past. Second, they spin their tails while defecating to cover the greatest possible area with dung and better mark their apparently never-ending territory. And third, they are retromingent, meaning that they urinate backwards, likely for the same reason. And you have to give credit where it’s due.
1Unless it’s an animal murder theme party, in which case it’s a great call.
2Steve Irwin, who used to make a joke of dangling his own babies in front of crocodiles, once said that taking a boat across a river filled with hippos was the most dangerous thing he had ever done.
3For a sense of how territorial hippos are, go to a zoo and toss a melon into their pool. Every hippo will immediately charge with rage in their eyes and hate in their hearts until realizing that it’s a yummy melon. The reaction is easily worth the hassle and weirdness of smuggling a melon into a zoo. Or so we’re told.
4This park ranger barely escaped with his life, and later testified against the hippo at trial.