Team Fiona: A Conversation with Christina Gorsuch, Curator of Mammals at the Cincinnati Zoo

After spending time at three other zoos, Christina Gorsuch became Curator of Mammals at the Cincinnati Zoo in 2015. She oversees the care and husbandry of a wide variety of animals from lions to black rhinoceroses to Asian elephants to Mexican wolves to African wild dogs. However, soon Gorsuch would become most associated with hippos when she became social media famous as Coach of Team Fiona, the animal care team responsible for caring for the zoo's prematurely born hippo. Here is her story.

@ Cincinnati Zoo

Christina Gorsuch’s zoo career began with a work study job at the Audubon Zoo when she was studying at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. After she completed her bachlor’s, she became a temporary primate keeper at Audubon for six months when a member of the team took maternity leave. After spending some time working at the Audubon Zoo full-time in the petting zoo, Gorsuch moved to Zoo Atlanta as a keeper in 2002. “When I started at the zoo, there was a perception the animal staff were valued differently than the ‘office staff,’ which made collaboration difficult,” she remembered. Gorsuch noted the zoo became more cohesive when Dennis Kelly, formerly a businessman for Coca Cola, became President/CEO. “Dennis Kelly brought a different energy to the zoo,” she recalled. “He walked the entire zoo once a week and knew everyone by name. He made everyone felt valued, which was very inspiring.”

@ Zoo Atlanta

@ Zoo Atlanta

Gorsuch started at Zoo Atlanta in the petting zoo; the petting zoo then closed to create Outback Station, which had a contact yard surrounded by exhibits for kangaroos, wallabies and cassowaries. While Outback Station was under construction, Gorsuch focused on small mammals like Asian small-clawed otters and munjtacs. She became the lead keeper for Outback Station when it reopened and remained in this position through several reorganizations that ultimately created one mammal department featuring elephants, lions and tigers. With the new department came new responsibilities including lead keeper for African hoofstock and the backup supervisor for elephants.

@ Zoo Atlanta

@ Zoo Atlanta

The move to African hoofstock would be Gorsuch’s first introduction to working with giraffe, a species she would continue to work with throughout her career. “Working with giraffe was a huge lesson in patience for me,” she mentioned. “Giraffe are skittish and wary of everything. Having started with otters and primates, I was used to quick thinking animals and fast-paced training sessions. Giraffes taught me to slow down and pay attention to small things.”

@ Zoo Atlanta

After almost nine years at Zoo Atlanta, Gorsuch moved to the Chicago Zoological Society’s Brookfield Zoo in fall 2010. “I wanted a different experience as I had only worked for southern zoos,” she recounted. “Brookfield Zoo was a historic, well-funded union zoo. My goal was to become a curator so I wanted to know what it was like to work at a zoo with a different management structure.” The transition was a bit of a culture shock. “Brookfield Zoo is like a mini-city,” Gorsuch noted. “All the facilities were built to stay warm in the winter and we had to manage animals indoors for a large portion of the year. I learned a lot and had the huge benefit of the time and opportunity to be mentored by my curator and given unique responsibilities and opportunities.”

@ CZS

Gorsuch’s boss, Curator of Mammals Amy Roberts, exposed her to the African painted dog Species Survival Plan (SSP). “It was the first time I worked with painted dogs and I immediately became obsessed with them,” she elaborated. “I tried to learn everything I could about them and ended up having good instincts for managing them. Turns out, working with painted dogs and small-clawed otters is oddly similar- they’re both social, finicky and aggressive.” Gorsuch would continue to be involved with the African painted dog SSP at the Cincinnati Zoo.

@ CZS

Gorsuch also started working with Mexican wolves, who had a completely different management style than any species she had worked with before. Since Mexican wolves are managed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the hope is to reintroduce them to the wild, human interaction must be kept to a strict minimum. “All zoos are supposed to manage them very hands off,” she remarked. “We want them to not associate humans with good things. Brookfield has an amazing wolf habitat that lets wolves have daily experiences that mimic the wild. We got a breeding pair and let the female dig natural digs. We let the wolves do whatever they wanted to do, which was incredible.”

@ CZS

@ CZS

“The first wolf roundup we did through me for a loop,” Gorsuch continued. “I was like what are we not doing? Aren’t we going to shift them in here and they’re like no, we just close the exhibit off and let them go inside. It was a crazy learning experience but the Mexican wolf SSP is so organized and well-run. It is a great example of a collaboration between zoos and wildlife professionals as well as the US and Mexico.”

@ CZS

Gorsuch was also the backup supervisor for okapis, a species the Brookfield Zoo is famous for breeding. “We had seven or eight okapis at the zoo during my time there,” she recalled. “I was there for the hand-rearing of an okapi calf, which was an incredible challenge and learning experience. His mom passed away when he was 31 days old. He had become attached to nursing from his mom so we had the impossible task of getting him to nurse from a bottle. We had to be very creative in ways we hand fed him.”

@ CZS

@ CZS

Gorsuch also worked extensively with giraffes at the Brookfield Zoo. “We had just gotten a breeding bull and had two calves in the first year,” she recalled. “Brookfield Zoo has a great animal welfare department and they did a giraffe welfare project that was like a fitbit for giraffes. We trained our giraffes to accept the fitbit and we monitored them for one month during the summer and one month in the winter. We found some very interesting data as their activity was very dependent on the giraffe and we found being indoors did not appear to have any significant effect on their welfare. Their lives were very different in the winter and summer but socialization, browsing [and other activities] were similarly complementary.”

@ CZS

The long-necked creatures tend to have their own challenges for animal care professionals. “Giraffes are some of the most challenging animals for me to work with,” Gorsuch reflected. “Hippos are a close second. They’re their own special creature and do everything on their own time. There are people who are amazing giraffe whisperers and can get them to do anything but for the majority of us they are a trial. Every day is a new day and you need a lot of patience. Out of nowhere giraffes will be terrified to move through a doorway. People who are good giraffe keepers can see what the giraffes are seeing.”

@ CZS

@ CZS

In October 2015, Christina Gorsuch came to the Cincinnati Zoo as Curator of Mammals. “I learned an immense amount at the Brookfield Zoo and felt ready to take a curator position,” she remarked. Gorsuch was also attracted to the Cincinnati Zoo because of its size. “Cincinnati has a family feel while Brookfield has a village city feel to it,” she noted. Gorsuch would become responsible for a large variety of animals including Asian elephants, giraffes, black and Indian rhinoceroses, polar bears, lions, cheetahs, African painted dogs, gray wolves, sea lions and meerkats.

@ Cincinnati Zoo

Kathy Newton @ Cincinnati Zoo

At the time, the Cincinnati Zoo was building Hippo Cove, the last phase of Africa. “Somehow no one mentioned hippos in the interviews but when I came in my boss said here’s an update on the hippos coming in,” Gorsuch remembered. “The foundation and walls for the hippo building were up while the rest needed to be completed. The Cincinnati Zoo would receive Henry, a male from the Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, MO, and Bibi, a female from the Saint Louis Zoo. “Moving hippos is a really daunting task as they can experience all sorts of issues,” Gorsuch noted. “Saint Louis was five hours away while Springfield was nine hours away.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

Gorsuch took the initiative of learning how to introduce the two hippos. “Not many people had introduced hippos in the last 20 years since a lot of zoos hold single male hippos or all females,” she explained. “A male-female introduction is not as common as you would think. I called the SSP coordinator and they said just see how they get along.” The concerns were short-lived as the pair got along very well. “Henry and Bibi loved each other,” Gorsuch stated. “Bibi had lived with her sisters at Saint Louis for many years so she was used to being around other hippos while Henry had lived with a female for the first twenty years of his life.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

Gorsuch noted hippos are easier to breed than many people think. “Hippos are pretty straightforward,” she explained. “You put them together and they tend to make babies. The tricky part is what to do once they are born. Hippo gestation is only eight months but they live for 40 years or more.”

Cassandra Crawford @ Cincinnati Zoo

Lisa Hubbard @ Cincinnati Zoo

Also in Africa were lions and cheetahs. “I’m more of a candid person than a feline person but I’ve rationalized lions and cheetahs are the most dog like of the cats,” Gorsuch remarked. Gorsuch noted the Cincinnati Zoo’s history and expertise with cheetahs has helped her, particularly as the zoo runs an off-site cheetah breeding facility and has cheetahs as ambassador animals. “I couldn’t be at a better place to learn about cheetahs,” she added.

@ Cincinnati Zoo

@ Cincinnati Zoo

Africa also features a one-acre savanna home to a variety of hoofstock and birds such as lesser kudu, Thomson’s gazelle, impala, wildebeest, warthog, ostrich, vultures and cranes. “Our savanna is relatively small so we decided to take a representative approach rather than have a larger herd of one species,” Gorsuch commented. “We only hold males, which helps everyone get along but also helps free up important breeding space at other zoos. We have a hand-raised castrated male wildebeest from Columbus who never quite fit in with his her. We thought he would be a challenge but he’s become the favorite. We’re not sure if he thinks he’s an impala or a lesser kudu but he fits in great.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

One of the Cincinnati Zoo’s biggest plans for the future is to do a state-of-the-art Asian elephant facility. “The Cincinnati Zoo has had elephants for over 100 years and our current elephants have been there almost their whole lives,” Gorsuch articulated. “My elephant manager is also a second-generation elephant manager. We have a lot of history with our elephants but there has not been a lot of reproductive success.” The Cincinnati Zoo has recently shifted from free contact to protected contact management with its elephants. “Our goal has been to allow these elephants a new era in their life where we let them learn to be elephants with each other, utilize their environments better and be less dependent on their human caretakers.” This approach will only be strengthened by the new facility.

Mark Dumont @ Cincinnati Zoo

The Cincinnati Zoo originally planned on doing an expansion of its current elephant facility but decided to build it from scratch instead. “We wanted to make sure we had the room to house elephants for fifty plus years,” Gorsuch claimed. “When we do our new facility, we plan to bring in a nucleus of related animals raised with each other and be the seed of a multigenerational herd. We have the ability and knowledge to do everything we need to do for elephants but we can also let them learn from each other.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

The Cincinnati Zoo has had a long history with rhinos. “Rhinos are some of my favorite animals,” Gorsuch elaborated. “We have an Indian rhino and she’s amazing. She’s so smart and interested in her keepers. We just had a black rhino calf born in July. She was a first-time mom but she did it like she’d done it a thousand times.”

Teagan Dumont @ Cincinnati Zoo

Eric Hill @ Cincinnati Zoo

Gorsuch became social media-famous as the “coach” of Team Fiona, the group who helped the prematurely-born hippo rebound and thrive. The story has been covered thoroughly on social media. “Team Fiona is unlike anything that I’ve ever done,” Gorsuch remarked. “It’s one of the hardest things emotionally I’ve ever had to do- walking the line between supporting my keepers and making animal management decisions. The weight of my decisions was impacted more people than I could have ever imagined. From day one, we were out there sharing everything we were doing with Fiona.” The transparency used in covering Fiona’s story was a strong departure from traditional tactic. “At Brookfield, we didn’t make a birth announcement for our wolf pups until they were four weeks old,” Gorsuch used as an example. “They were running around the exhibit but we couldn’t officially say we had wolf cubs.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

Mark Dumont @ Cincinnati Zoo

When she was born on January 24, 2017, Fiona was at least 6 weeks premature and weighed 25 pounds less than the lightest hippo on record. “The day Fiona was born was a blur,” Gorsuch remembered. “I didn’t think she was going to live 24 hours. We couldn’t even get her temperature up to a normal level. When PR wanted to tell everyone everything, we thought they were insane.” Fans around the world watched as Fiona rebounded and began to grow up.

@ Cincinnati Zoo

@ Cincinnati Zoo

Ultimately, this decision made the emotional rollercoaster easier. “We went for it and I’m very glad we did as that energy helped us get through and her get through,” Gorsuch reflected. “There were definitely some dark days when we didn’t know if she was going to make it so knowing everyone was behind us made a huge difference. It made a huge difference when Henry got sick [and died.]”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

Kathy Newton @ Cincinnati Zoo

The Cincinnati Zoo’s commitment to animal wellness will only become richer in the future. “I’m really proud of us learning what these animals are doing, their life in range countries and creating their environments physically and socially in zoos,” Gorsuch concluded. “Creating that for them is where we’re going.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

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