For those who don’t know the story; back in 2004 during the infamous tsunami disaster, a baby hippo was found stranded on a little piece of land out from the coast of Kenya. The baby hippo, Owen (named after one of the rescuers), was brought to Haller Park near Mombasa. There, the frightened hippo ran from its caretakers and hid by an old, crotchety aldabra tortoise (Geochelone gigantea) named Mzee (MIZ-ZAY). At first, Mzee wanted nothing to do with Owen, but the little (relatively speaking) hippo wouldn’t leave him alone. Eventually he grew to tolerate Owen’s constant harassment.
Then something wonderous happened. Mzee and Owen became friends. Owen would follow Mzee around everywhere. They would eat together, bathe together, and sleep together. Mzee (the tortoise) invented a way of speaking to Owen. When Mzee wanted to go somewhere, he would gently nibble the tail of Owen. Soon Owen caught on and would do the same, when he wanted to go somewhere. It was an awesome spectacle to behold. This was completely different from what we see with, say, humans and their pet dogs, or cats. It was also different from the agricultural relationship between humans and livestock, or ants and aphids. This was a case of a genuine friendship between two very different animals (separated by over 300 million years of evolution!).
Owen and Mzee had even developed their own way of talking to each other. They were also very protective. Neither would passively allow a human keeper to get near the other. It was and is one of the most heartwarming, and amazing things to ever be observed in the natural world.
In 2006, a children’s book was released, documenting the story. Owen and Mzee became world famous, with visitors wanting to see the dynamic duo in person.
Back in 2007, it was decided that Owen needed to make friends with other hippos. His relationship with Mzee resulted in Owen acting more, and more like a giant tortoise (a hilarious sight to behold). Unfortunately, the friend that they chose for Owen (a female named: Cleo), was too much of a rough houser with the giant tortoises, so they had to separate Owen and Mzee. It’s hard to say if either animal suffered any heartbreak from this separation (I haven’t read any mention of it anywhere). I also don’t know if the two guys are sharing adjacent enclosures, so they might be able to still hang out.
Nonetheless, the story of Owen and Mzee is one that will live in infamy. An amazing case of inter-special friendship between a mammal and a reptile that, prior to this, no one probably ever thought was possible.
It’s amazing, and it’s all completely documented on their official site: OwenandMzee.com Make sure to watch the documentary. It’s a heartstring puller.