For the Love of Fiona


Fiona and her mom, Bibi. [Photo credit: Cincinnati Zoo]
This weekend, in honor of Ruby’s soon-to-be 11th birthday, we took a family trip over to Cincinnati with a plan to visit the Cincinnati Zoo and meet Fiona, a six-month old hippo and Internet sensation who lives with her mother Bibi and her father Henry in the hippo exhibit at the zoo. It is no secret to you all that I’m a big animal lover—but something in particular about Fiona’s struggle and spirit really touches my heart and captures my imagination. Her story says something hopeful to me about the way God tenderly loves all life, intervening and helping us come together, bringing light and love to any situation we face.


So this morning I’ve got a few simple ideas to share with you that I see in Fiona’s story.

1. Sometimes the blessings we get aren’t the blessings we expect.

Fiona is a baby hippo who was born two whole months early. She came before anybody was ready or expecting her. Her mom wasn’t in the water where hippo moms usually have their babies, so this tiny but perfectly formed baby hippo was unceremoniously dumped out on the hard concrete floor of the hippo house.

The caregivers at the zoo had been monitoring mom Bibi by webcam, and it was late at night when one of the hippo staff, who was at home, happened to look at the video screen just at the moment the tiny baby was born. She grabbed her phone and called the employee who lived closest to the zoo and told him what happened and he sped over there, not expecting to find the little hippo alive.

The baby was only the size of a small puppy—extremely undersized for a newborn hippo. She was moving around a little—that was a good sign. The caregiver scooped her up and placed her on some straw, hoping she would be able to get some traction on the floor and stand. He was encouraged by the amount of movement the tiny baby showed, but she was too small and too weak to get to her feet. The rest of the hippo staff raced to the zoo to see what could be done.

So often in life we look forward to things, anticipating something good, and when the reality arrives it is much different from what we’d had in mind. At first we may feel disappointment—gosh, this isn’t as great as I thought it was going to be—but if we’ll hold on and watch for God in the situation, we may soon see some good and unusual things beginning to happen.

2. Sometimes blessings ask a lot of us.

No one at the zoo knew how to care for a hippo baby that was born two month prematurely. As far as they knew, it had never been done by a zoo before. But here was the opportunity. And the challenge.

As quickly as possible, they learned all they could about what this tiny baby needed. She hadn’t yet developed the means to regulate her own body temperature. That meant they had to hold her, rub her, cuddle her, be in contact with her literally 24 hours a day. So management at the zoo changed the caregiver schedule so at that least one human was with Fiona around the clock, staying in close contact, like a mama hippo would.

They also quickly knew that Fiona’s lungs weren’t completely developed, so she had to be on oxygen for quite a while, and she really didn’t like that. (Later they threw a little party for her to celebrate the day she was finally free of her air tubing and could walk where she wanted, free and untethered to a concentrator). And at first Fiona’s digestive system wasn’t mature enough for food, so they had to figure out how to feed her. Luckily Bibi, Fiona’s mom, is very food motivated, so they positioned one caregiver at her head, feeding her snacks, while another caregiver attempted to milk her. They were successful enough to get milk for Fiona’s first few days—that was also the first time anyone had tried and been successful milking a hippo. They sent some of the milk off to a lab to be tested, and the report gave them the breakdown of hippo mother’s milk—how much protein, how much fat, what the important enzymes were that Fiona needed to be fully nourished. They took that information and were able to come up with their own formula that was very close to what Fiona would have had if she were a full-term hippo infant.

Depending on the type of blessings we are hoping for—peace at work, healing in the family, way opening in a relationship—we may just want God to fix whatever’s not going well and make things right for us. But that would leave us out of some of the blessing God wants us to receive. I’ve noticed in my own life that God always wants me to be involved, to learn something, to do some inward changing of my own, when I’m praying for something specific. If I want a relationship to improve, God also asks me to search my heart, to be willing to see where I need to learn and grow and cooperate. Sometimes our blessings ask a lot of us. But, the blessings that come are for everyone touched by the situation—not just one or two people, or hippos, at the center of it all.

3. We always have more help than we know.

God showed up in Fiona’s story in an uncountable number of seen and unseen ways. It was remarkable  that the zoo worker just happened to be looking at her webcam when Fiona was born. That another employee could get to the zoo within minutes. Each person who made a suggestion—the straw for the floor, the blankets for keeping Fiona warm, the new schedule to keep her body temperature up, oxygen, even milking Bibi—was acting on a stirring of the light, an inspired idea, that arose at just the right moment. Life itself—the energy and love of God—wanted Fiona to live.

In every situation, God is continually revealing more designed to help and support us. It is one of the big functions of the light. Things may look dark at first, but then ideas, solutions, and people begin to show up with just the thing we need. Solutions appear out of nowhere—sometimes even before we know a problem exists.

4. Love invites all of us to be part of the blessing.

Everyone knew there was no guarantee that Fiona’s story would have a happy ending. During her first few months, there were many risks to the little hippo. They almost lost Fiona when she was several weeks old. She had been gaining weight and doing better, but all of a sudden she seemed to lose interest and her strength waned. She looked grayer than usual, like she lost her spunk and color. The vet assessed her and felt she was dehydrated; they started an IV to replace her fluids, but Fiona kept knocking the IV out. Workers began to despair and prepare themselves for the worse. And then a new idea arose. They called Children’s Hospital—a world renowned facility right across from the zoo—and asked the NICU staff what to do. Within minutes of their call, an emergency NICU team was headed for the zoo, bringing along a specialized IV kit that they used to place the IV in such a way Fiona would not be able to remove it. The idea worked. Fiona began her once-and-for-all climb into sass and joy. And she hasn’t looked back since.

When we face struggles in our lives often our first instinct is to try to tough through it by ourselves. We want to figure it out on our own; we’re embarrassed that we’re having the struggle—whatever it is—and would rather others not notice and just go on about their lives. But God doesn’t want us to go through things alone—he made us for relationship. Working through our circumstances, God heals our sense of separation and brings others alongside us, people with the expertise we need, or the comfort we seek, or the light we’ve been hoping for. That’s not just other people being nice. That’s God, stirring their hearts and reaching into our lives to help lift the burdens off our shoulders.

Some of you may have heard me tell the story of the little girl who was afraid of having nightmares. Every night after her mom put her to bed, she’d get back up, five, six, ten times. Her mom was trying to be patient but her patience was understandably wearing thin. One night she went in at bedtime and said, “Let’s say a prayer asking God to be with you so you don’t have to be afraid of nightmares tonight.” The little girl agreed, and they prayed their prayer. Then Mom tucked the little girl in bed and went out to the living room. Five minutes later, here comes her daughter. Mom was exasperated. “Honey, what are you doing up?” she asked. “We just prayed. God is with you. You don’t need to be afraid.” “But mommy,” the little girl said, “Sometimes I need God with skin on.”

The love for this little hippo spread first across the country and then around the world. She has been the subject of TV news stories, articles, web posts and more. The Cincinnati Zoo started a new show they are calling “The Fiona Show” to help those who love her keep up with her progress. Today she is strong and sassy enough that she’s been reintroduced to her mom and dad, and yesterday when we were at the zoo, she reached the 500-pound milestone. (An adult female hippo will weigh 3,000 pounds, so she still has a way to go.)

But the hope ignited by Fiona’s story shows very clearly on peoples’ faces. Some folks cry when they see her; it is a special occasion that touches their hearts. When we were watching Fiona beside her mother Bibi yesterday, a young man to my right proposed to his girlfriend—a cheer and applause spread through the crowd as one of the zoo attendants announced it on a loudspeaker. The blessings of Fiona continue on, shining with love and hope and goodness in the hearts of those touched by her story. Who knew a little hippo could be a prophet of God’s love, reminding us of best parts of ourselves, encouraging us to go back to our daily lives more determined than ever to be “God with skin on”—even if it’s hippo skin—for others.

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