Sunday, January 01, 2006

A Good Enough Mother

The tsunami in December, 2005 caused many deaths, many upheavals, untold sorrow. Because the organisms of Earth are adaptable, we began once more to put pieces back together, to fashion new pieces for the missing ones -- the ones who vanished in the wave and would never return.

In the midst of the chaos, death, and subsequent corruption that followed one of the world’s horrible tragedies, a few redeeming stories emerged. For me, last year, it was a love story. A genuine willingness to make the best of things and to connect with another in a way that brought satisfaction to both.

The story never fails to move those who read it. Last February, I happened upon the article in an Asian newspaper and marveled at the ability to transcend loss and separation. The child’s resilience was truly awe-inspiring. So much so, that I made a Valentine card out of the picture and the few details I could gather then.

The outside of the card read: “A Love Story” and was accompanied by the picture of mother and child. The inside of the card simply related the news story:

A baby hippo rescued after floods in Kenya last week has befriended a 100-year-old tortoise in Kenya.

The one-year-old hippo calf christened Owen was found alone and dehydrated by wildlife rangers near the Indian Ocean.

He was placed in an enclosure at a wildlife sanctuary in the coastal city of Mombasa and befriended a male tortoise of a similar colour. According to a park official, "they sleep together, eat together and have become inseparable."

The hippo follows the tortoise around and licks his face.

The tortoise is named Mzee, which is Swahili for old man.
Owen and MzeeOwen did more than merely “befriend” Mzee. He adopted Mzee as his mother. The tortoise was less than delighted with the idea of motherhood at his state in life — confirmed bachelorhood — but Owen, that resilient baby hippopotamus, persisted in his attentions to Mzee.

First, however, Owen himself had some adjustments to make, some grieving to do. Here’s what the caretaker says in early January:

We have had Owen for five days now and just when I thought he was recovering something even more worrying happened. Today I noticed that he has started walking around in circles. Sabine told me that these are the symptoms of a very serious disease and we called Dr. Kashmiri to come and check him out. Dr. Kahsmiri arrived in the late morning, Owen was still doing his circles. According to the vet however, this is not a disease but perhaps an indication that Owen is still traumatized and feeling lost and alone. I wish we could do more to quickly settle Owen down.
The next day, Owen began his adjustment:

Today I noticed that Mzee began is beginning to show some interest in Owen, and Owen has stopped his turning just as suddenly as he started it. Everyday I put the food out in the same place and Mzee knows and appreciates it. Today I noticed that he does not seem to mind Owen following him. In the heat of the day Owen was sleeping beside him, some part of his body always touches Mzee, just like a human child reaching out for some security.

Owen has started following Mzee to the pond to swim, and then back out again to the food, and the most extraordinary thing happened today. I noticed Owen copying Mzee in eating dairy cubes (concentrated food that we give the other hippos) and drinking water. I wonder if my eyes are deceiving me, but Owen seemed to be copying Mzee.
By mid-January, Owen had regained his healthy pink color and was growing. The caretakers were worrying about the future of this strange mother and child:

Everyone is interested in Owen and Mzee. My friends want to know how long this relationship can last. I often wonder about this myself. Owen will outgrow Mzee before long and I think he would be much better off with another hippo. Sabine and I are preparing a new much better long term place for Owen which will be large enough for him and Cleo. We will not be able to move them for some time, and since Cleo is an adult, we don't know how quickly she will respond to Owen. We have never done this before so it will be a big learning experience for us. I don't even know how we will move Cleo - she must be several tons in weight!
In March, Owen was becoming more independent, though still attached to Mom Mzee.

Owen still spends time with Mzee, but they are not as in-separable as they were in the beginning. He seeks the proximity of Mzee specially when he feels threatened or disturbed.

But when they do stay together, Owen’s attachment to Mzee still seems strong. Owen still seems to take Mzee as a fellow hippo, a friend and protector – at times nudging him to accompany him to the water, or just lying next and snuggling up to him. We have observed Owen licking Mzee’s face and neck, what Mzee seemed to enjoy a lot, as he then stretched his neck as if to encourage more (like the giant tortoises do when you scratch their neck – they stand up and stretch their neck.
By April, the two have an established relationship, one in which communication manages to take place, even across the chasm of species-difference:

Sometimes I think that Owen and Mzee are communicating, they often look as if they are deep in conversation. When they move Mzee sometimes waits for Owen to get up before he moves on. Owen always looks for Mzee before he goes exploring. At one point Owen looked as if he was helping Mzee to climb over a fallen log by nudging the back of his shell when he seemed stuck with all four legs off the ground! When Mzee goes on walks he marches and Owen keeps up with no effort at all. I noticed just how much Owen has grown, he is almost the size of Mzee now.

The bond between them is stronger than ever. Owen can sometimes be seen licking Mzee’s wrinkled face and neck as the old tortoise stretches his neck out, or nudging Mzee's shell with his fat foot when he wants to go for a walk. He still sleeps with his head nestled comfortably on Mzee's enormous scaly arm. Mzee reciprocates and has been filmed putting his head trustingly into Owens mouth during a yawn.

When they fell asleep Mzee looked as if he was watching over Owen and only put his head down after Owen had closed his eyes.
Behind the scenes, in October, the Caretakers are trying to figure out how to move Owen into a habitat with Cleo, another lone hippo who lives in a separate enclosure. They hope that Mzee will be tolerated by Cleo, though they seem to think that Mzee is the one who must sacrifice. If Cleo doesn’t like Mzee, then Momma has to go:

Owen has recently gained a lot of confidence and courage. Unlike in the past when he would run into hiding behind Mzee or water, he is now behaving boldly. Hippos yawn to display their irritation or excitement. Owen occasionally yawns at visitors and today he actually threatened to charge at me! This sort of boldness shows that he seems to be quite at home now.

Although he is courageous towards people, he is not when it comes to Mzee. Everything he does and everywhere he goes depends on what pleases Mzee. Mzee is also quite bossy. When Mzee is on land eating and Owen decides to go into water, Mzee would follow him there and push him trying to get him out of the water. Owen can be stubborn and doesn’t just oblige that easily. So it takes Mzee a lot of nudging before he finally succeeds in making Owen do what he wants.
By December, the Caretakers have figured out the boxes they must use to move Owen over to Cleo’s enclosure. Owen has developed a new habit, and they aren’t sure what it means:

Although Owen and Mzee still spend most of their time together, Owen is becoming more aggressive with Mzee. Owen has taken to biting and shoving Mzee whenever he is hungry and wants to eat but Mzee is not moving. The food is spread round their enclosure as much as possible so that Owen and Mzee are always close to food somewhere. However it has not deterred Owen from biting Mzee. Could it be that he is teething and it is uncomfortable for him?
Fortunately, I don’t think a young, teething hippo can damage a tortoise’s shell right now. But this is an ongoing relationship so who knows what the future holds? Last year, who could have predicted this relationship at all? Owen, miraculously rescued when his mother and the rest of their herd were swept away, must have looked at Mzee and, heart thumping, said to himself “’twill do, ’twill serve.”

The world is full of mystery and magic, and the greatest magic of all is mysterious love.

There's a downloadable free pdf. story here. The Caretaker's Diary is a month-by-month account of this love story.


At 9:29 AM, Blogger Wally Ballou said...

What a wonderful story - love is where you find it and the foundational commonalities between us are so much deeper than the apparent gulfs that divide us. A good message for us humans who often think others of our own kind so alien.

At 12:10 PM, Blogger Papa Ray said...

I've known two men that have died, and shortly there after their dogs have died, even though they were taken good care of and loved by others.

There is a connection. What it is, couldn't be called love..

could it?

Papa Ray
West Texas

At 2:05 PM, Blogger Dymphna said...

Wally B--

It pleases me so much that something I write would move you. It makes me happy.

Papa Ray--

A blogger -- I can't remember where I read it now, you know how one can get lost in the ether -- wrote of the death of his dog, followed shortly by the death of his cat, the latter having died of grief, he said.

The ties that bind us I believe are synaptical -- actual brain changes as the attachment continues thru time. Thus, when a mate of any sort dies -- from spouse to gerbil -- we are literally diminished.

But that's the biiochemistry. The real word is love, isn't it? Such an overused word, such an unplumbed mystery.

The title of this post comes from a Brtish clinician who described poetically how the mother makes space for the baby to organize himself, an inner space where thoughts occur and transformation takes place. He called it attachment but he knew it was love.

Shrinkwrapped talks about the tyranny of perfection (all Utopians suffer from it) -- this story, underneath, is meant to deny perfection a place in our universe.

At 5:19 PM, Blogger who, me? said...

This is a moving metaphor for everyone I know who has found deep love or friendship. Orphans from the waves who make space for each other to re-organize his soul, nearby, safely.

And feel free to get off the weekly list kick. No one wears panties or socks embroidered with the day of the week any more. Just consult that last list, any day of the week, and see what it triggers. The Neighborhood awaits your appearance at the door.

(In a former-slave neighborhood in Austin the residents often stood on their porches at dawn to begin the day with a hymn. Just come to the door, wipe your hands on your four-sack apron, and sing to us...)

At 11:15 AM, Blogger jimbo said...

huRead more about Owen & Mzee at their blog:

Join the Owen & Mzee Yahoo Group at:

Publisher's website will launch soon:

See Owen & Mzee Movie trailer:


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