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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Owen and Mzee

Owen and Mzee are a hippopotamus and a tortoise, respectively, that became the subject of much media attention after forming a unique bond of friendship.

A baby hippopotamus, Owen, was orphaned in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Kenya near Malindi during the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake on December 26, 2004. The baby hippo, weighing 600 pounds (270 kg), was stranded on a large rock not far from shore. He was finally rescued during a day long effort by nearly 1,000 villagers using shark nets. Owen's namesake is a French student volunteer with the KWS named Owen Saubion, who finally tackled the hippo during the rescue.

Owen was taken to Haller Park, a restored limestone quarry near Mombasa owned by Lafarge Eco Systems' East African firm, Bamburi Cement. He was released into a large wooded penned-in area that included a pond and a co-inhabitant − a 700-pound (320 kg), 130-year-old Aldabran tortoise named Mzee (Swahili for "old man").

Owen immediately bonded to Mzee and would crouch behind him. However, Mzee initially resisted Owen's overtures. Over time, the old tortoise came to accept the young hippo, who began to mimic his adoptive parent. Gradually, Mzee taught Owen, who was a nursing calf, what to eat and where to sleep.

In the first year, the two became inseparable companions who ate, slept, swam, and played together. Owen often played with the old tortoise by jumping on Mzee's back, scratching the old tortoise on the neck, and in many other ways. They surprised scientists with the strength of what appeared to be a genuine bond, as well as with the unique vocal communication that developed between them.

Owen and Mzee became worldwide celebrities as a result of their astonishing behavior, captured on film and video primarily by BBC photographer Peter Greste. Two picture books,Owen and Mzee: The true story of a remarkable friendship and Owen & Mzee: Language Of Friendship, both published by Scholastic Press, and authored by Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff, and Paula Kahumbu were released in February 2006 and January 2007.

Owen and Mzee were also the subject of children's musician Marla Lewis's song 'Will You Be My Mom?', released on her 2007 album 'I Love To Talk To Plants', as well as Judy Feeney's song 'Owen and Mzee,' released on her 2007 album 'The Ants' Dance.'

As of March 2007, Mzee has been removed from the enclosure. A female hippopotamus named Cleo has been added to provide companionship for Owen. Due to Cleo's rough behavior with the other tortoises, a decision was made to remove the tortoises. This has resulted in Owen and Mzee living apart, but their friendship, which lasted for over two years, continues to inspire people from all over the world. Owen seems to be adapting to his new companion and it is possible that Owen and Cleo will have offspring when he reaches maturity.

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