Lu the hippo hitting the half-century mark

Lu the hippo — the only hippopotamus recognized as an official citizen of Florida — basks in the sun as visitors pass by his enclosure Saturday in Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. His birthday parties today will be 3 tons of fun.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Lu the hippo — the only hippopotamus recognized as an official citizen of Florida — basks in the sun as visitors pass by his enclosure Saturday in Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. His birthday parties today will be 3 tons of fun.

HOMOSASSA SPRINGS

There will be no gag gifts when Lu celebrates his milestone 50th birthday today — no black balloons, vitamin supplements or cover-the-gray hair dye.

He will get a tractor tire to play with, which may take him back to when he was just a young hippo tossing around a tire in a Union Carbide television commercial to demonstrate the brand's durability.

Lu will have cake — actually bread with sweet frosting — and there will be singing, a special song in his honor performed by the children of the Homosassa Elementary School chorus. There will also be visitors from Hippolotofus, the International Hippo Society.

The parties, one at 10 a.m. and another at 12:30 p.m., recognize a big deal. After all, not only is Lu one of the oldest hippos in captivity, he's also the only one to be declared an official citizen of Florida.

Soon after the state took over the park from Citrus County on Jan. 1, 1989, officials looked for a new home for the hippo since he didn't fit with the all-Florida wildlife theme.

Area residents overwhelmingly opposed moving Lu and in 1991, Gov. Lawton Chiles issued his "honorary citizen'' edict, granting permission for the hippo to live out his days at the park.

Lu is now the most recognizable and beloved resident of the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park.

While the birthday party is an annual event, this year's celebration has been declared a "signature event'' as part of the Florida Park Service's 75th anniversary.

For his part, Lu is taking all the special attention in stride.

One day last week, he munched alfalfa on the "beach" in his enclosure, unimpressed by the visitors pausing to snap photos of his massive mouth chomping and grinding.

An African hippopotamus, Lu was a part of the Ivan Tors Animal Actors, a troupe that used the then-privately owned Homosassa attraction as its winter home beginning in the late 1960s. He and some of the other animals were left at the park when it changed hands.

The hippo's best friend was a fellow animal actor, a donkey named Susie. Because he would follow her anywhere, park handlers used the donkey to move Lu from place to place.

Back then, Lu was known as Lucifer. But a few years ago, former park manager Tom Linley recalls, some of the park workers shortened the hippo's name. Many had always called him Lu. Others were concerned about invoking the Prince of Darkness every time they called the hippo.

And call the hippo they did, often from other parts of the park, trying to get him to respond in his bellowing bass voice that reverberates throughout the attraction.

"Lu: huuuu … huuuu … huuuu … huuuu,'' was Linley's birthday greeting to his old friend. "Congratulations on your half-century birthday. Enjoy the special celebration and try not to eat too much; you have to watch your waistline because at your age it can get out of control."

Another former park manager, the late J.P. Garner, used to rub the hippo's gums to comfort him. Lu was especially nervous when his dry concrete pad would flood in bad weather. Garner also stood by the animal with his gun, prepared to kill Lu if rising floodwaters allowed the hippo to float to freedom into the Homosassa River during a hurricane threatening the coast in 1985.

Fortunately for all concerned, the water never rose that high.

Susan Strawbridge, the park's spokeswoman, recalled having to ask the state for overtime pay at one point so park employees could spend the night with Lu. Workers were fortifying his enclosure but every night, he would tear up the work, ripping out the rebar.

The hippo sitters, Strawbridge among them, would stay up all night and distract the hippo whenever he would try to eat their remodeling.

Park staff say they hope Lu will be with them a long time and his health is good. While he is thought to be far older than his cousins in the wild, his mother lived to be 55. And in Evansville, Ind., the oldest hippo alive, Donna, turned 58 at the Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden last July.

Zoo registrar Dana Duke knew exactly what greeting Donna would have for Lu as he reaches his milestone: "Donna would say, 'The secret to a long, happy life is water aerobics and meditation.' "

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Fast facts

About Lu

Born: Jan. 26, 1960.

Birthplace: San Diego Zoo.

Weight at birth: 90 pounds.

Weight today: 6,000 pounds.

Daily diet: 15 pounds alfalfa hay, four scoops herbivore diet and a 5-gallon bucket of vegetables and fruit.

Movie credits include: Daktari and Cowboy in Africa.

TV credits include: Jack Linkletter Show and Herb Alpert Special.

Lu the hippo hitting the half-century mark 01/25/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 3:43pm]

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