Lucifer, America’s oldest hippo, confronts his age in Homosassa Springs

In the wild, an ancient hippopotamus might make his 50th year. Lu turned 59 in January.
Published February 14
Updated February 15

HOMOSASSA SPRINGS — Lucifer poses in the sun. He has this down, seeming not to care while simultaneously stealing all focus. He’s Kate Moss on the runway. He’s Greg Maddux in the World Series. He’s Kurt Cobain on the cover of Rolling Stone, staring at the camera behind sunglasses and a T-shirt that says, “Corporate magazines still suck.”

Lucifer has spent all morning underwater, and some days he might stay there. But turn a corner on a path winding through Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park and there he is: the oldest living hippopotamus in the Americas and certainly one of the most famous, lumbering around his beach, resplendent in the warming January morning.

He commands the limelight. He adapted to it as a child actor and roadside attraction star. He clung to it when the state took over the park and resolved to get rid of all nonnative animals, and he snatched it back in a matter of months when the park tried to discontinue the daily educational program he featured in.

They call him “Lu” these days. Some felt his full name was too connoted with the devil. No one can say why he was named Lucifer in the first place.

Today there are cameras, which Lu mugs for. He huffs steam from his nostrils. He cranks his jaw open, and the inside of his mouth looks like the bottom of a river. He “laughs,” a sound that in the wild signals aggression but in Lu signals goodwill.

He rests his head — the size of a mini-fridge — on the rock wall around his enclosure. Later, he will gingerly edge back into the water, like an aging wrestler lowering himself into an ice bath.

Lu turned 59 in January, and he has started feeling his age. He sometimes takes palmfuls of ibuprofen for his arthritis. When his skin dried out, park rangers devised a lotion made of aloe and honey and a method for applying it to an animal too dangerous to touch: a long-handled paint roller. He’s approaching rarefied hippo air: of Donna, who lived to 61 before her 2012 death in Indiana; of Bertha, who reportedly touched 65 before dying at the Manila Zoo in 2017.

In the wild, an ancient hippopotamus might make his 50th year. Life spans for hippos tend to average between 30 and 40. Lu’s wild cousins lack the benefits of proprietary skin lotion and a steel-encased night house, of course, but Lu barreling toward 60 is kind of like an American human making it to 120 — with a healthy appetite and functioning knee joints.

And he is still something to behold. If you haven’t been up close to a hippo in a while, you might not grasp the gravity. He is assuredly bigger than you think, and surprisingly elegant on feet the size of Frisbees.

Still, some people manage to look away, and when they do, Lu shows his chagrin in the most casual way he knows. This is why the edge of the enclosure sports a yellow, diamond-shaped sign with a silhouette of a tail-swishing hippo and the words “SPLATTER ZONE.” It’s why one of Lu’s human friends asks, as if in warning, if we are familiar with how hippos go to the bathroom.

And now the onlookers have turned away, and Lu turns away in response. Then he swishes his tail, and the careless souls spring away from his dung spray like house cats from a lawn sprinkler.

No hits this time. Just a friendly reminder to pay attention. Here he is, a cult icon, a living relic of a Florida that only exists now on postcards and in movies, and he stands here for you in the sun.

• • •

Vicky Iozzia has been a volunteer at Homosassa Springs for 15 years. Three days a week at 12:30, she stands before a crowd that lines the edges of the enclosure and gives the afternoon program, where she runs down the history of the park’s alligators and their neighbor the hippo, “the most stubborn individual I have ever known.”

He is Vicky’s best friend. She tosses him hunks of cantaloupe; he offers reliable companionship. Her ringtone is his laugh. A bench near the enclosure has a plaque that reads “LU AND VICKY FOREVER.”

If you’ve been to the park, or read about Lu before, you probably know the outlines of his life, which started with his birth at the San Diego Zoo and hit its first significant plot point around age 4, when he was sold to Ivan Tors, the writer-director who spent the 1960s making animal-themed adventure shows like Flipper and Daktari.

The park cites Lu as a star of the latter show, and at least one episode does prominently feature a young hippopotamus. Though the show’s nonhuman crediting is sketchy, the plot of “The Return of Ethel and Albert” from 1967 seems drawn from Lu’s life. It hinges on a pair of unusual, inseparable companions, a hippopotamus and a donkey. In real life, Lu followed Tors’ troupe donkey, Susie, like a shadow.

As Vicky tells it, Susie led Lu into showbiz, and when she died, he quit.

The animal troupe lived at Homosassa Springs when it wasn’t filming, and its presence helped the springs find success as a roadside attraction. In the decades after the rise of the automobile, such attractions thrived along major surface roads like U.S. 19. Rick Kilby, a self-described “roadside history enthusiast” who wrote Finding the Fountain of Youth about Florida’s springs and environmental tourism, says the attractions connected to the earliest days of tourism in Florida, when steamboats hauled wealthy patrons down the state’s waterways so they could gawk at — and shoot, then stuff — the bizarre animals.

The creatures of Homosassa Springs, regardless of whether they were native to Florida, fit into that tradition. Today, the park’s youngest patrons may be three or four generations removed from kids who, in the 1960s, bought bags of marshmallows to toss into Lu’s mouth. He has survived from an era defined by roadside tourism to one where its remnants, Kilby says, are “endangered.”

The end was already coming when Lu arrived. The year before the hippo joined Tors, Walt Disney flew over a tract of land in Orlando and saw magic. Eight years later, Disney World opened. The theme park pulled tourists onto the newly constructed I-4 and Florida’s Turnpike and away from U.S. 19, U.S. 441 and the Old Dixie Highway. Roadside spots withered.

Lu has outlived the era’s other relics. Snooty the manatee, who lived at the South Florida Museum, died in 2017, two days after his 69th birthday when he drowned in his tank. Nellie, a dolphin born at Marineland in 1953, died in 2014. Sarasota Jungle Gardens may have some parrots older than Lu, Kilby says, but none are as iconic as the hippo.

“I think he’s the last one.”

• • •

In 1990, a 32-year-old Tom Linley walked into a Homosassa Springs in flux. In the 1980s, Citrus County had purchased the struggling park, and a year before hiring Linley to manage the park, the state took it over. Buildings needed repair, new staff needed training and Linley’s predecessor had played fast and loose with state procedure.

The state tried to keep the park’s spirit while redefining its purpose to focus on native animals. Linley had to clean house. He sold the geese and peacocks to private owners. He got bids from zoological facilities on the monkeys. And then he realized Lu was next on the list.

Linley, now program director for the Florida State Parks Foundation, says he wasn’t surprised at what happened next — he knew generations of locals had fallen for Lu’s charisma — but didn’t expect the scale of it. In his previous job, he had managed an island park that got 200 visitors on a big day; now he was at one that got 200,000 in a year. And as word spread that Lu might leave, local outrage turned into a letter-writing campaign that turned, eventually, into then-Gov. Lawton Chiles’ recognition of Lu as a citizen of Florida.

It helped cement Lu’s legacy, and to Linley, it made him a representation of the community’s investment in the park. From 1990 to Linley’s departure in 2004, the park’s annual volunteer hours increased from 6,000 — the equivalent of about three full-time employees — to 10 times that.

Around the same time, zoos and wildlife parks started changing in ways that are still evolving and being debated. They had once been focused on human entertainment — the opportunity to interact with, or at least get close to, an exotic beast, and maybe see it do some neat tricks. Over the past few decades, attention has shifted to education and conservation.

Lu was a harbinger of this future. Tors was ahead of his time in animal training, says the park’s wildlife care supervisor, Tricia Fowler. He trained Lu with concepts like positive reinforcement and operant conditioning, where animals learn to associate their behaviors with certain outcomes. Now, Lu will open his mouth for you, which is great not just for entertainment but also for inspecting the health of his teeth.

Today, the park focuses on rehabilitating injured native animals and caring for those that couldn’t survive in the wild. If you’re looking for pathos, there’s plenty to go around — in the whooping cranes trying desperately to conceive, in the Florida panther orphaned when he lost track of his mother and followed the wrong adult panther in the wild.

Lu is different. He’s not an ambassador of Florida’s native fauna; he can’t teach people about the creatures they may encounter in the wild. What he has in common with the park’s other permanent residents is that he could never survive on his own. This is his home.

Linley has a favorite Lu story. The 1993 Storm of the Century caught the park off guard just like everyone else, and that night, Linley found himself in a canoe hitched to Lu’s enclosure as the water rose to 4 feet on the sidewalk. He had the 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. shift. Coleman lanterns hung in the trees, the only light around.

Linley clutched a gun. This was standard procedure in the days before Lu had a night house that would stay put in a flood. Before that, every major storm carried the possibility of Lu’s escape into the Homosassa River, a disastrous possibility given his size and strength. Park employees would have to kill him before he could hurt anyone.

The manager could hear the wind ripping up fences around the park. Trees crashed into the alligator lagoon nearby. Lu lurked somewhere in the water, and Linley constantly swept his flashlight across its surface, looking for the red reflection of Lu’s eyes.

Some alligators and otters got out that night. Linley thinks Lu could have, too, had the water gone up another 2 feet. But Linley had “the total bejeebers” scared out of him there in all that darkness when Lu broke the surface of the water right beside the boat.

As if to say: I’m still here.

• • •

Lu’s 59th birthday celebration followed the outline of years past. He got two parties, one on the morning of the Monday after his birthday and one later that afternoon. He got a “cake” — really, bread with sweet frosting. Backed by schoolchildren, Vicky sang a birthday song. She writes a new verse every year.

She thinks about Lu’s mortality. She thinks about it like she did with a sick cat once: Let’s just enjoy what we have right now. That’s all we have.

Lu never hides his feelings, and his dominant feeling seems to be unbothered. Maybe the passage of time feels like nothing to him. There are just days that are colder than others, and days that his dung hits an unsuspecting third-grader, and occasionally days when he’s tossed a hunk of bread covered in something sweet.

When Linley managed the park, he lived in a trailer home set up on cinder blocks behind the animal enclosures. Every day, he walked past Lu’s enclosure, and as he passed, he mimicked Lu’s Darth Vader laugh: haauuuugh haaauuuuugh haaaauuuuugh. Eventually, Lu started calling back.

Linley still does a pretty good Lu impression. And maybe it’s reflex and maybe it’s memory, but, well, you know how Lu responds.

Does Lu ever get lonely? Vicky pauses.

“He doesn’t want people to know he’s a virgin.”

She laughs. Lu wouldn’t know what to do with a mate. A bachelor’s life is the only life he has ever known. And anyway, people come from all over, every day, to look at him. Plus, she has him. Lu and Vicky Forever.

“I don’t think he ever gets lonely,” she says.

She knows, at least, how she feels standing at the edge of his enclosure.

Sometimes she sees him looking out at the clear spring water, eyeing the manatees that swim in for the warmth in winter months. It doesn’t look like longing to her. She thinks he’s communicating silently with these other huge mammals, visitors to his domain. When all you know is cupped by the horizon, what more is there to want?

Contact Jack Evans at jevans@tampabay.com. Follow @JackHEvans.

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