Owen & Mzee

Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff, and Dr. Paula Kahumbu

Photographs by Peter Greste- Narrated by Larissa Stone

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This is the true story of two great friends:

a baby hippopotamus named Owen

and a 130-year-old giant tortoise named Mzee.

The hippo was not always friends with the tortoise.

He wasn't always known as "Owen."

And Owen was not always famous the world over.

Here is how it all happened.


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An Unfortunate Start

As a baby, before he was known as Owen, the hippopotamus lived with his mother in a group, or pod, with about twenty other hippos where they fed and wallowed in and around the Sabaki River in Kenya, on the east coast of Africa.

When he was about one year old, heavy rains flooded the river, and the racing water washed Owen and his family down the river. The river flowed into the Indian Ocean, near Malindi, a small town on the coast.

The people of Malindi spent days trying chase the hippos back up the river, but the hippos would not leave because they were enjoying grazing on the grasses along the shore and in the villager's yards.

An adult hippo weighs about 8,000 pounds, so there was little the villagers could do to.


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One morning a few weeks later, the sea suddenly rushed high onto the beaches, and surging waves pounded the shore.

The sea eventually calmed, and the next day the villagers thought to check on the hippos who had been living near the shore.

They only found one hippo remaining, a baby without his mother, stranded on a sandy coral reef among the sea grass.

Soon hundreds of villagers were working together to save the hippo. They used ropes, and boats, fishing nets, and even cars to try and bring him ashore safely.


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The rescue was not easy. The baby hippo was only 2-feet tall, but he weighed almost 600 pounds, and he was slippery and strong.

He was alarmed by all of the human commotion, and broke free of their ropes as they tried to save him.

Hours later, it was a visitor to the coast named Owen who was finally able to hold the hippo still long enough so that the other rescuers could secure him with a shark net. The hippo would later be named Owen, after the only man who was strong enough to hold him still that day.

The rescuers towed the baby hippo toward land. When they reached the shore, a joyous cheer went up from the thousands of on lookers who had gathered on the beach to watch the rescue.

Still wrapped in a net, they hoisted the hippo onto the back of a pickup truck, and drove him to a shady area to rest while they decided what to do next with the baby hippo.


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A New Home for Owen

The rescuers contacted Dr. Paula Kahumbu, the manager at Haller Park, an animal sanctuary 50 miles away.

She explained that the baby hippo would not survive in the wild, as he was only a baby and has not had a chance to learn how to fend for himself. Worse, he would be seen as an intruder to other hippo pods and be attacked.

Dr. Paula immediately offered the baby hippo a place to stay at her sanctuary. She and the sanctuary's chief animal caretaker, Stephen Tuei drove to Malindi to pick up the baby hippo and bring him back to his new home.


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When Dr. Paula and Stephen arrived in Malindi they helped to remove the nets and lead Owen out of the pickup truck.

Owen became angry and charged towards the people gathered around him. They tried to calm him by wrapping a blanket around his head so he could not see what was going on, but that only made him more upset.

Hours later they were able to calm Owen enough so that a dozen rescuers could move him from the pickup to Dr. Paula's truck. They tied him down so he would be safe for the ride home to Haller Park.


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Meanwhile, ecologist Sabine Baer and other sanctuary workers began preparing for the hippo's arrival by making a large enclosure.

They chose a part of the park that had a pond and a mud wallow, as well as tall trees and brush. It was everything a hippo could ever want!

The area selected for Owen was already home to a few vervet monkeys, bushbacks, and a giant Aldabra tortoise called Mzee.

Mzee, whose name means "wise old man" in the Swahili language, was 130 years old, and the oldest creature in the park. He was not very friendly, Stephen was the only caretaker Mzee got along with, and other than occasional tickles under his chin from Stephen, Mzee kept to himself.


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When Owen arrived at the park with Dr. Paula and Stephen he was weak and exhausted.

As soon as the ropes were untied he scrambled from the truck directly to Mzee, who was resting in a corner of the enclosure. Owen crouched behind Mzee, just as baby hippos hide behind their mothers for protection.

At first, Mzee did not like the attention he was getting from Owen. He hissed at the baby hippo and crawled away. But Owen could easily keep up with the slow old tortoise and he did not give up.


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Eventually as the night went on, Mzee began to accept his new found companion.

The following morning, the park workers came to find Owen snuggled up against Mzee, and the old tortoise did not seem to mind at all.


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You've Got a Friend in Me

Over the next few days, Mzee continued to crawl away, and Owen continued to follow him. Sometimes though, Owen would walk away from him, and Mzee would slowly follow behind the baby hippo. Bit by bit, Mzee became more friendly towards Owen.

Stephen and the caretakers struggled to get Owen to eat when he first arrived at the park. Then they discovered that when Owen was put to eat side by side with Mzee, he would eat all the leaves left out for him.

Some think it was because Mzee was a role model, and others think that perhaps being next to Mzee made Owen feel safe enough to eat.

It was becoming clear that the bond developing between the two animals was helping the baby hippo recover from the separation from his mother and being stranded at sea.

As the weeks went on, Owen and Mzee spent more and more time together, and soon they were inseparable.


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To this day the two swim together, eat together, drink together and sleep next to each other.

They rub noses and play follow-the- leader, taking turns leading the other to different parts of the the enclosure.

Owen nuzzles Mzee's neck playfully, and just as he does when Stephen tickles under his chin, Mzee stretches his neck forward to Owen, asking for more.

Both animals are gentle with one another, and trust has grown between them.


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An Unlikely Pair

Wildlife experts are still puzzled about how this friendship came to be. Most have never known of a mammal and a reptile forming such a strong bond.

Some theories are that Owen mistook Mzee for another hippo, and took to him because he was looking for protection from his mother.

Some researchers think that perhaps it was Mzee who mistook Owen for another tortoise, however, Mzee like most Aldabra tortoises had always preferred to be alone. For some reason, Mzee likes Owen anyway, even if he is not mistaking him for another tortoise.


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News of the friendship spread quickly around the world, and people have come to love the two best friends.

Their photographs have been in many newspapers and magazines. The two have appeared in television shows and a film documentary has been made about them.

The reasons why the two animals became so close are unclear, however, science can't always explain what the heart already knows; Our most important friends are sometimes those we least expected.


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