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Baby hippopotamus Farasi stirs up controversy at Switzerland's Basel Zoo

March 21, 2009 |  5:48 pm

Baby hippopotamus Farasi

A hippopotamus calf named Farasi has received a great deal of attention since his birth in November at Switzerland's Basel Zoo.  The baby is so popular that he was named "Swiss of the Year" for 2008 (besting Swiss tennis star Roger Federer for the honor).

But not all the publicity surrounding the zoo's star attraction was positive.  Swiss media widely reported that Farasi (whose name means "horse" in Swahili) was one hippo too many at the Basel Zoo (hippos are famously territorial, and a herd can contain only one adult male).  Reports spread that the baby would likely be killed, his body fed to the zoo's large carnivores.  The Wall Street Journal explains:

American zoos believe in birth control or sexual abstinence for their animal populations. But Europe's 4,000 zoos take a more continental approach to reproductive rights: Animals should be free to do what comes naturally. The result is a surplus of offspring. And if zookeepers can't find a home for the babies, zoos typically kill them. Some carcasses are used for research. Meatier cuts -- and Farasi surely qualifies -- are thrown to the lions.

21-year-old Andrea Dindo of Zurich cried when she read about Farasi; then she started a Save Farasi Facebook group, members of which wrote to zoos across Europe asking them to take the hippo.  Time and again they were told that there was no room.  From the Wall Street Journal:

"The Swiss have paid more attention to Farasi than to the war in Gaza," says Jocelyn Rochat, the reporter who covered the story for Le Matin, a French-language daily. The newspaper's readers are the ones who voted Farasi "Swiss of the Year."

Animals have a special place in Swiss hearts. Last September, Switzerland passed an animal bill of rights that says that pet guinea pigs, for instance, should be kept in pairs to avoid loneliness. Swiss have to mercifully knock out their goldfish before flushing them down the toilet.

A Swiss circus offered to take Farasi, but the zoo declined; a spokesperson said he needed "a properly accredited zoo where he can live in a social unit." 

Hippo "People want zoos to be this sacred place where nothing bad ever happens," Robert Zingg, chief curator of the Zurich Zoo, told the Journal. "But it's not like that."  He explained that his own zoo sometimes euthanizes chimpanzees and recently put down a lion cub when it was rejected by its mother. 

The uproar reached a fever pitch.  But, the Associated Press reports, the Basel Zoo now says Farasi will -- most likely -- not end up as a lion's lunch:

Basel Zoo said the hippo, Farasi . . . will stay at the zoo until a place is found for him elsewhere.

"There are rare cases in which we have to kill an animal" and feed it to carnivores in the zoo, said spokeswoman Tanja Dietrich. But this was unlikely to be an option in Farasi's case, she said.

The zoo previously found a new home for an older sister of Farasi's. 

See video of Farasi at the Wall Street Journal.

--Lindsay Barnett

Photos: Andreas Frossard/Associated Press

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