No one saw it coming, least of all Chad Yelton.

“We were all pretty shocked,” says Yelton, the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens’ vice-president of marketing and communication. It was the morning of Jan. 24. The zoo’s animal care team had been preparing for the birth of a Nile hippopotamus for several months. But there was still plenty of time. Bibi—the mother—had a due date sometime in March.

But things didn’t play out that way. Sometime during the night, Bibi had given birth. Six weeks prematurely.

This was the hippo we would come to know as Fiona. The official line is that she was given the name because it comes from the Gaelic word for “fair.” But a second and far more logical reason is because the hippo’s ears reminded everyone of the tiny little ears of Princess Fiona in Shrek.

In the months since Fiona was born, she has become a global celebrity. How popular is she? In all of 2016, the zoo’s Facebook videos were viewed 8 million times. Not bad at all. But nothing compared to the 106 million views in the first six months of 2017.

Recently, Facebook approached the zoo and asked if it would create a weekly, Fiona-related mini-documentary to stream on the service. The first one went live Aug. 29.

Fiona has officially gone viral.

Naturally, Yelton and his staff have been delighted with all the attention. But back in January, building online traffic was not the first thing on their mind.

“I remember walking back there and seeing her shortly after she was born,” says Yelton. “The question we were all asking ourselves was ‘Is everything OK?’ And the truth is, the prognosis wasn’t good. It was very touch and go.”

If you saw those early videos, you know exactly what he means. Often Fiona had oxygen lines running to her nose and an IV catheter in one of her rear legs. And whenever she walked, she had to be supported. She was often extremely listless. None of that was surprising. Being born so prematurely, many of her internal systems simply weren’t as developed as they needed to be.

Everyone put on a good face. But in fact, no one knew with any certainty if Fiona would live.

Animals are born all the time at the Cincinnati Zoo. A week after Fiona came into the world, three Malayan tigers would be born. And a month later, a baby takin, a huge mammal indigenous to the bamboo forests of the Himalayas. In July, a black rhinoceros would come along, too. Almost every week some animal or another gives birth at the zoo. But none of them have had Fiona’s star quality.

From the moment she was born, the world embraced Fiona in a very different way.

Perhaps it was the classic underdog nature of her situation. Or maybe it was that the rest of the world beyond the zoo fences seemed so topsy-turvy. Remember, Donald Trump had been inaugurated just four days before Fiona was born. Almost immediately, all of us in America—presidential fans or not—had been enmeshed in unpredictability. Fiona provided an escape. Or maybe it was the sense of hope engendered in this plump, slippery mammal.

“We weren’t promoting her any more than we would normally promote a birth,” says Michelle Curley, the zoo’s communications director, who is deeply involved in the zoo’s social media presence.

“But everyone seemed to want more information. They were looking at our Facebook updates and reposting everything we put out there.”

By “they,” she means zoo followers, local media, random animal lovers—even international media. The Guardian, the venerable British newspaper, posted a Cincinnati Zoo video and a short article on its website the day after Fiona was born.

News of Fiona was everywhere, from The New York Times and Russia’s Sputnik News to CNN and the BBC.

Soon, there were Fiona T-shirts and Fiona mugs. (“I Just Freakin’ Love Fiona,” crowed one.) The U.S. Playing Card Co., in Erlanger, is making a deck of cards with Fiona on the back.

“That’s when we got a call from Busken Bakery,” says Yelton. “They wanted to make 100 cookies and donate $1 to the zoo for each one they sold. They were gone in like two seconds. Now, 46,000 cookies later, they’re still making the cookies.”

Listermann Brewing Company in Evanston started brewing a New England-style IPA called Team Fiona. Soon, the zoo will announce a Team Fiona holiday ornament, as well.

In August, Zoo Director Thane Maynard announced that he had signed a contract to write a book about Fiona for Houghton Mifflin publishers.

But again, it’s not what the zoo intended. It’s not that they tried to steer clear of it. But more than most organizations, they know the extraordinary power and fickleness of social media.

It was just eight months before Fiona’s birth that Harambe, a 17-year-old silverback gorilla was shot dead after a 3-year-old child fell into his enclosure. The resulting online melee was nightmarish. Suddenly, anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account became a self-appointed expert in primate behavior.

The zoo and, particularly, the animal care staff—the keepers—were savaged. Social media trolls depicted them as insensitive killers or worse.

As much as Fiona’s story has been a heartwarming one of animal survival, it has also given the world an opportunity to see firsthand the extraordinary devotion and expertise of those same animal care workers that were attacked just months earlier.

Understandably, Yelton would rather not talk about Harambe.

“It was a rough year for us and our staff,” he says. “But most of our community here had our back. And they still do.”

So it’s no surprise that rather than milk the Fiona phenomenon for all its worth, the zoo has devoted itself to managing the attention rather than pushing it. They’re in it for the long haul. After all, a Nile hippo in captivity can be expected to live upwards of 40 years.

They’ve tried to back off the daily posts and tweets. In July, they asked followers how they felt about slightly less frequent communication.

“We got 115,000 comments telling us not to do that,” says Curley. “We got the message. She is loved. And people want to know about her. We’ve heard from people from every state and 70 countries. I can’t pinpoint what it is. But without a doubt, Fiona has inspired a lot of people. And she’ll continue to, I hope.”

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