Move over, April the Giraffe. Fiona, a 5-month-old hippo born premature at the Cincinnati Zoo, is the animal kingdom’s newest celebrity. Since her birth, the zoo has nearly doubled its number of Facebook followers, and daily updates on Fiona’s growth and progress get an average of 35,000 likes — more than 10 times the average number other posts get.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Michelle Curley, the zoo’s communications director, who is part of a three-person team tasked with sharing Fiona’s story with the world via social media. “People have Fionamania.”
Below, Curley tells EW about discovering Fiona’s personality, how she’s become an unlikely symbol of body positivity, and whether Fiona-themed books and movies could one day be a reality.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How would you describe Fiona’s personality?
MICHELLE CURLEY: I would say she’s curious, which has served her well. We’re starting intros with her mom, and she’s not afraid to go over and explore — I don’t know if you’ve seen the video where she basically sticks her entire head in [her mom] Bibi’s mouth. She’s also stubborn. If she doesn’t want to do something, she’s learned that she outweighs all of us and will just sit down. She’s playful. She likes her enrichment toys, especially likes her pool noodle. She adapts well. She might be tentative about something at first, but the next time we try it, she gets it. So she’s smart. Probably a genius, if you ask me.
What it’s like trying to capture and convey her personality through social media?
We have to word everything carefully because we’re not inside her head. She’s not a person. But we report what we see, and we get a lot of help from her animal care team. They explain to us what’s happening: Instead of, “Oh, it looks like she’s smiling,” we can explain what’s actually happening instead [in terms of] natural behavior. We try to add some educational information about hippos. We’re doing something that’s never been done before: She’s the smallest hippo on record to have survived [being born premature], so everything with her is new.
When you tweet about her many adoring fans and how she’s somewhat elusive — Fiona isn’t on a regular viewing schedule at the zoo yet — she sounds like a Mariah Carey-esque diva. Was that something you’re trying to convey?
Yes! You picked up on it, and that is accurate. Some of her caregivers call her diva. You absolutely picked up on that. And we also sing to her!
With tweets like “Double chins are a good thing when you’re a hippo!” Fiona seems to have become an unlikely symbol of body positivity.
I’m glad you picked up on that, because it’s intentional. We’re embracing the neck rolls. We’re happy when she steps on the scale and gains three more pounds. It’s a whole different way to look at things — people are usually embracing the skinny.
How much do you pay attention to the online conversation around her?
As much as we can. At a certain point, when you have 40,000 comments on one post, you can’t possibly look at all of them. We do see the memes. And we see so many funny ones and positive comments. I haven’t seen one mean Fiona meme. People are having fun with it.
The closest thing I’ve seen to anything negative is that some people on Twitter think Fiona is solely a PR move to counteract bad press about Harambe, the gorilla who was shot last year at the zoo after a child fell into his habitat. What would you say to those people?
Just that she’s not. We just wanted to share her story with the world. When she was premature, we weren’t sure if she was going to make it or not. We could have waited to see what happens and kept everything quiet. We could have not shown her at all. But we decided we would let people root for her along with us, and they did. We had no idea that it would go crazy like this. If we had tried to plan it this way, I don’t think we could have.
The zoo recently warned people about a fake Fiona Facebook page scam that was selling unauthorized merchandise and claiming the money went to the zoo. Are there surprising challenges that Fiona’s popularity has brought that you don’t normally encounter?
Absolutely. The fake pages do pop up, and we have to manage that. That’s not easy because as soon as they’re taken down, another one pops up. We have people wanting to make books and beers and playing cards and t-shirts and merchandise. Some of those endeavors benefit the zoo and some of them don’t. But we’ve never really been managing products like that before, so a lot of our time has been spent figuring out what to do with that.
Is there a world in which a movie studio would buy the rights for a movie? Could she become a TV cartoon character? How far will the merchandising and licensing go with her?
I think that could happen. I do think that could happen. Our director is writing a book with a publishing company, and that’s mentioned in the contract, something about the possibility of future things like a movie. We don’t have any plans for that, but it could happen.