- Back in 2011, a man insisted his adopted hippo was "like a son" and perfectly safe.
- The hippo, Humphrey, mauled the man, and left him submerged in a river.
This 2011 story about Humphrey, a “domesticated” hippo, has started making rounds on the internet again. It has the broad structure of a parable, about trying to tame wild animals and not having enough personal respect for the massive power of nature. There’s something specific to hippos that makes some people construct bizarre relationships with these super-deadly animals. They’re considered the most powerful animals on a continent of very-powerful animals. And yet, the people who cared for Humphrey and Jessica (another famous “adopted” hippo) describe the animals as like children, who would never hurt anyone intentionally.
Spoiler: both Humphrey and Jessica attacked people.
People really love hippos.
Jessica’s owners downplayed the attacks in the media but in 2014 the hippo bit the hand that fed her, severing the thumb and sending Stephen Jansen van Rensburg to the hospital by helicopter. Jessica’s still around and 20 years old at this point; tourists in South Africa can go pet and feed her and continue to tempt fate.
There’s not much on the internet about what happened to Humphrey after he attacked and killed his owner, Marius Els. During his six-years living on the Els farm, neighbors complained of him leaving the 400-acre property and chasing people on a nearby golf course. He even pursued a man and his grandson who were canoeing nearby, trapping them in a tree for two hours before Els could corral his hippo-boy.
Nothing like risking your life for YouTube fame.
Els became a brief internet-sensation when he posted a video of him riding Humphrey “like a horse.” Neither man nor hippo looks comfortable with the stunt, and Humphrey tosses Els off into the water at the end of the video. There’s an aspect of the Disney-effect at play. Why do people want to ride wild animals so badly?
With Els, he seemed stuck on downplaying the danger hippos pose to people, “I call him and immediately responds to come and play with me.” He told the British tabloid the Mirror, “I feel him apples. He opens his mouth. Big jaws, and teeth like this.”
An expected end to the story.
Paramedics discovered Els’ body in the river where he first found Humphrey as an abandoned calf. Humphrey had mauled Els and submerged him in the water for an unknown amount of time. Hippos will attack people unprovoked, they’re territorial animals–especially males, and when there are calves around. They kill a staggering 500 people per year, far more than any other animal in Africa, except for mosquitos.
Despite these statistics, people can’t help but anthropomorphize the massive creatures, believing they share a unique bond with an unpredictable wild animal.
“It’s a little bit dangerous,” Els told the media before his death, “But I trust him with my heart; he will not harm anybody.”