Belonging to a species that is currently listed as endangered, Hannah Shirley the pygmy hippo sure does have a lot to celebrate this year! At the ripe age of 40, Hannah has become the oldest living pygmy hippo in the nation.

Pygmy hippos are known to exist in only four West African countries, and their population numbers are estimated to be below 3,000 individuals. Habitat destruction and poaching are the main threats to these small hippos, and their struggling populations are sadly, predicted to continue to decline.


While Hannah herself is special because she belongs to an endangered species, she is also unique in that she was the first known pygmy hippo to be rescued from a private homeowner’s possession. Rather than living in the comforts of a rain forest or swamp, Hannah was found in 2002 living in the backyard of a suburban California residence.

However, her life was not as cushy as you would imagine. Without access to a swimming pool or proper shade, Hannah’s back was covered with painful sunburns and deep cracks. The skin of a hippo dries out easily when they do not have access to bodies of water to replace their skin’s moisture. Hippos are able to produce natural secretions that act as antiseptics and sun screens, but cannot do so if their skin is dry.

Seeing Hannah’s severe condition, rescuers immediately began to treat her with a big pond and a lot of antibiotics and creams. With time, her skin began to heal and glimmer like diamonds in the sunlight – an indication that Hannah was producing her own natural secretions once again.

Despite her tough beginnings, Hannah was able to begin anew in a 13,000 square foot paddock at The Fund for Animals Wildlife Center.


Complete with a private pool, natural pond, heated den for the brisk winter months, and ample shade to help Hannah get through steamy summers – Hannah seemed to be enjoying her new enclosure like a queen in a castle.

To this day, Hannah continues to live it up at the rescue facility.


She enjoys sleeping during the sunny days and actively enjoying her enclosure at night. Each day at sunset, she relishes in feasting on “hippo salad” (a combination of apples, squash, melons, and onions … yum!), grains, and hay. When she’s not snacking, Hannah can be found floating on her back in her pool or creating whirlpools. She will wiggle her ears when she’s happy – this happens a lot at her new sanctuary home.

According to Ali Crumpacker, the director of the wildlife center, “Hannah is stubborn. She is getting ready to go to bed when we arrive in the morning, so she needs to be taken care of first thing or she will be sound asleep. Once this happens, no amount of treats or toys will convince her to wake up and move so her habitat can be cleaned. And since she is so territorial, it can’t be cleaned if she is in there.”


Luckily, this personality quirk doesn’t stop caretakers from loving Hannah each minute she lives at the center.


In fact, the facility decided to throw Hannah a birthday party (complete with purple hippo piñatas, big pink soccer balls, and party guests) to celebrate the hippo’s complete determination to survive any struggles that could possibly be thrown her way.


Since the average lifespan of a pygmy hippo ends around the early 40s, Crumpacker says, “Every year from this year out will be a milestone.”

A Happy Ending With an Important Lesson

Hannah’s story has had an incredibly happy ending, but she is a living reminder of what can happen when people try and keep exotic animals as pets. Pygmy hippos are a greatly endangered species, and no matter how adorable Hannah may be, she belongs in the wild – not in California as a house pet. The sad reality is that there are many exotic animals living as “domestic” animals in the United States. Hannah’s mistreatment illustrates the fact that most people who purchase exotic pets are just simply not equipped to take care of animals that require very specific climate conditions and diets to survive. A wild animal should never have to suffer because a naive person wants to keep them as a pet. Adopting an animal is a huge responsibility to begin with –  adopting an exotic animal can have consequences that far exceed those associated with having a dog or cat.

Please share Hannah Shirley’s story and remind other that while we are so happy she has been rescued, she should have never been put in a situation where she needed to be rescued in the first place.

To learn more about The Fund for Animals Wildlife Center, click here. To make a donation to keep Hannah in all the hippo salad she could want, click here.


All image source: The Fund for Animals Wildlife Center