Hippo Love

New insights into the lives and minds of the hippopotamus

Posted Jun 05, 2015

Karen Paolillo, used with permission.
Source: Karen Paolillo, used with permission.

Karen Paolillo is founder and director of the Turgwe Hippo Trust, Zimbabwe, the first and only non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation and protection of hippos. Karen and these "Giants of the River" are a remarkable testimony to trans-species mutuality.

For decades, Karen and the animals of Turgwe have lived with and learned from each other. Karen's time with the hippos is not just for study, but to understand them deeply and make their survival possible. Because of the Turgwe Trust, hippos have a chance to retain their culture and raise their young in hippo traditions and homelands.

Life for the Turgwe River Valley residents because of human violence, Karen describes her remarkable experience with hippos in her new book, A Hippo Love Story.

In here interview here, Karen provides some background and the critical importance of cross-species language and culture in conservation

Karen, can tell us a little about how you became involved with hippos and how the Trust began?

The Turgwe Hippo Trust came into being after the horrendous drought of 1991-1992, the worst in living memory. At the time I happened to be living within the Save Valley Conservancy and had already become alarmed at the decline of hippos in the Lowveld of Zimbabwe. Before the drought of 1993, over 2,000 hippos lived within the Lowveld; on my return in 1990, I discovered that the numbers had dropped dramatically to about only 600 animals. During the drought, I began an intensive feeding program of the last thirteen hippos in the Turgwe River below my home. All thirteen animals I personally fed during those ten months of the drought survived. The cost of saving these hippos was high, but the results have been worth the effort: in the 1990s, a critical time, we saw at least 16 new calves born. All told, there have been 45 calves born here since 1993.

Karen Paolillo, used with permission.
Source: Karen Paolillo, used with permission.

Once I saved their lives in 1992, these hippos became hugely important to me. Not just because of my own commitment but also because I felt responsible to the many complete strangers who had helped me with sponsoring their food. Since December 1992, I have conducted a daily study of these Turgwe hippos, which led to the creation of the Turgwe Hippo Trust in October 1994.

Can you describe the nature of your communication with animals and what you talk about?

I have studied a group of hippos for nearly twenty-five years to understand more about specific individuals and his or her natural behavior. As I am dealing with wild animals on a daily basis, I have had to develop a means of communication where they would relate to me as a non-threat. Most humans in the environment where I live have either hunted hippos for "sport hunting" or poached them as a means of food. While living with the hippos I have also formed a close relationship with a troop of over 50 vervet monkeys, and with another troop of over 40 Chacma baboons as well as various other animals. All of them have been wild and not in any way hand-reared, nor have they come into contact physically with humans before I came on the scene.

Communicating with all of them commenced with words, my words, as this is something all of us use and I see no reason why one cannot speak to an animal. I discovered very early on that if one kept an even monotone, and did not raise ones voice, either in an aggressive manner or, say, in amusement, as in laughter, that the animals responded in a far calmer manner. Over the years I have come to realize that all the animals, whatever their species, do not like loud human voices or being laughed at. It is important to retain a quiet calm monotone that is non-threatening. The same goes for people meeting new people.

I have also discovered that hippos can learn to identify their individual names. Like in any species every individual is different than another. Some who respond better to my voice than others, and so on. One hippo in particular stood out. He was the dominant bull and so the overall protector of the family, and he responded to me much more than many of the others. He not only identified his name but he would come when called, often moving as far as half a kilometer down to me in the River when he heard his name. By the tone of my voice he would also respond and to my own mood at that time. I would always reassure him that he and his family need not fear me. In his past, men had killed some of the members of his family and so naturally saw humans as a threat. In those first years he was aggressive towards me and only recognized me as a threat. But over time, he learned who I was. He was very perceptive and, given what people do and how they usually are, incredibly open.

Do the animals with whom you speak communicate the same way?

All wild animals have their own way of communicating verbally and so if you are studying a wild animal you soon pick up his or her different communication skills. After a couple of years, the hippos always called when I left them after a few hours of being in their company. They still do that today. It is a recognized call that they make to each other and they do it as well to me when I say goodbye, as a way to acknowledge and say goodbye.

The same applies to the baboons and vervets all have their way of speaking amongst themselves and do the same to me using the same different calls, which they use. Monkeys and baboons have distinct calls for recognition of a fellow companion, for all predators they have a different call from say a snake or a raptor, and so on. Like people, they show alarm, anger, etc. by their calls and their body language. Each predator elicits a separate call. The calls that monkeys, baboons, and hippos make to me are an acceptance call, and yet the call for other humans is often as if they were calling at a predator. I can understand each of them by their call, by their body movements, eye movements and basic body language.

What else have you learned?

First, not to expect a dog or a cat or a hippo to be a human and vice versa. We are all different species, but we all have one thing in common: the ability to communicate in our own way. We all have feelings and emotions, and we must respect each and every species on this planet and not try and make all species be us, as the uniqueness of a species, and every person is who they are.

Karen Paolillo, used with permission.
Source: Karen Paolillo, used with permission.

Overall, repetitive words and repetitive ways of speaking with a constant slow monotone are best for communicating with an animal. Having a happy voice and feeling and showing that you are pleased transmits the feeling of safety and wellbeing for that animal. I have seen that if I am angry the same applies. The animal picks it up quickly and hence reacts to that anger, either as a threat or becoming angry his or herself. The animal follows your lead and reacts accordingly. When it comes down to it, all animals as well as humans and different cultures have a few things in common: love, family and the need to be loved. Trust grows if aggression and anger are held back and only good energy is exchanged.

My words and how I speak allow me to share the life of these wild animals and be part of their inner circle without them reacting to me as a (threatening) human being. They allow me to be part of their daily lives and it is a privilege and joy. In the case of the monkeys and the baboon troop when meeting them in the bush away from the environment that they constantly see me in, they still react as if I am part of the troop without any fear, they do not run away. They allow me to be in their company without any threat or fear.

This also allows me to be right next to other animals such as warthog or impala without their realizing there is a human with the baboons or vervet monkeys. It is only when these other animals actually see my human figure and/or detects my scent that they become alert, reacting as they would to any other human. When with the troop of monkeys or baboons in the bush, I am not seen as a human at all, until they realize I am. So my words to the animals with whom I live allow me to be part of their extended family or clan. I have tried very hard to learn how to speak and understand other animals so that I can understand them better and learn more about them.

Everyone can do this by putting oneself in a quiet environment and just listening first of all to what is around…listening to nature. Then being with whichever animal you wish to learn from and listening and watching that animal being totally natural. Study his or her daily behavior every second of the day and night if you can, and learn to fit in with that behavior. Do not try and make the animal respond to you —you must be like the animal. You must let him or her want you to come to it. Do not try to dominate. You must forget your own needs and concentrate on the animals. Intuitiveness is important, action as in non-aggressive, remaining constant very important, repetitive actions also very important.

I would think that every way I have used to study the hippos and communicate with them can be used with any species, as well as birds and even reptiles. All of nature will respond to this method. There really was a Garden of Eden where humans could have walked amongst animals and been totally accepted by them. Sadly, that does not exist now as man threatens and kills them and their memoires and their own family members show them to fear man. Even a huge herd of elephants can be reduced to a fleeing family when approached by man when he has culled or in any way hunted them down.

Have these experiences affected your way of communicating with humans and how you feel about the spoken and written word?

I actually do not really see people very often as I live in the bush with my husband. But yes, living so closely and carefully listening in and watching animals for all these years makes you realize that it is very easy to communicate with people who do not speak your language, just by the way you approach them, that is in the way you use the tone of your voice, your eyes, your hands —you can speak as easily as you would in full conversation, just as you can with animals.

I believe the written word and speaking is very important to people but we have overlooked the rest of our senses and tend not to use these other channels of sensing and knowing, which we would have used in days gone by. They are as just as important especially when dealing with animals. Sight, hearing, scent —all are things that an animal uses all the time (and we people used to develop and now tend to not use) are essential when communicating with animals. And the most important thing is to be able to trust another species enough to be able to have them trust you and to be accepted in their life.

What is the biggest difference between human-human and animal-human communication?

The biggest difference is that it is possible for us to say exactly what we feel emotionally and physically. In animal-human communication, the animal cannot tell you in words the details of where or how he or she hurts, physically or mentally. The animal can convey love, hatred, fear, pain, but cannot put it into the same detail that humans can, so you have to have a strong intuitive streak within your make-up to come to conclusions quickly with an animal when needing an answer to one of those queries above. Whilst with a human it would be a lot quicker.

Communing and learning how to understand and talk with animals is healthy. By remaining calm, quiet, reflective and intuitive with an animal, one gains an inner peace that is incredibly hard to find in society as we know it. If one spends time with an animal learning how to communicate with them, then your own health and state of mind can only benefit positively. Learning about and communicating with fish in an aquarium calms the spirit, which is why so many doctors and dentists have them in their clinics—and why so many fish are made to suffer. Animals teach us to take a moment to contemplate, to slow down, to be quiet and to listen.