Nose-to-nose with hippos

CAMDEN, N.J. – Genny and Button sound like cute little kittens, but you wouldn’t want these animals jumping on your lap.

Weighing in at around 2 tons each, Genny and Button are the resident hippos at Adventure Aquarium, located just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia in Camden, New Jersey.

Billed as the only aquarium in the world to have hippos on exhibit, Adventure Aquarium opened in 2005. Since then, over seven million guests have viewed not only the hippos but other exhibits ranging from sharks, stingrays and penguins to smaller invertebrates such as sea cucumbers, sea stars and shrimp. In all there are over 8,500 aquatic species housed in two million gallons of water.

“There are so many unique experiences for our guests that we believe it’s worth driving 12 hours to get here!” said Kim Horishny, guest relations director.

Fortunately, it only takes about 3 1/2 hours – not 12 – to get to the Adventure Aquarium from Williamsport. It’s easily a short trip for parents looking for an educational and entertaining activity for their children.

A 550,000-gallon shark exhibit, Shark Realm, holds the largest collection of shark species on the East Coast, with the biggest measuring in at over 10 feet in length and weighing nearly 400 pounds.

The exhibit features a floor-to-ceiling viewing window and a 40-foot tunnel running through it for viewing the sharks from every angle.

Another favorite area, Horishny said, is Ocean Realm. Here, in 760,000 gallons of seawater, visitors can view massive sea turtles, including a loggerhead sea turtle nicknamed “Bob,” stingrays and a collection of shark species, including two hammerheads.

“We have ‘KidZones,’ penguins and four touch exhibits, she said. “We also have some awesome animals that our biologists bring out for guests to see up close.”

KidZone, an area designed for children 6 and under, offers a collection of vibrant and colorful animal species, as well as lower exhibit heights and pop-up exhibits that allow children and kneeling adults to crawl underneath for a unique view of the fish. There also are interactive games, activities and touch experiences that encourage children to learn through play.

At Stingray Beach Club, one of the touch exhibits, visitors are encouraged to touch several stingray species, including the cownose rays, southern stingrays, leopard whiprays and yellow stingrays. There are opportunities throughout the day to hand-feed the stingrays. Incorporated in the exhibit is an area for younger children called Sand Castle Island, featuring smaller stingrays.

“The most popular touch exhibit is Touch-a-Shark,” Horishny said.

Here, people can reach in a tank to touch and feel exotic sharks, such as the Indo Pacific brown-banded and white-spotted bamboo sharks.

If the idea of touching a shark is too intimidating, the Creature Feature station features invertebrates from the shores of the Pacific Northwest, such as sea stars, anemones, sea cucumbers, shrimp, snails, crabs that are available for a hands-on experience.

Other areas include Carribean Currents, which features 15 individual warm-water exhibits. Creatures that live there include Northern diamondback terrapin turtles, horseshoe crabs, schools of reef fish, seahorses and eels.

A giant Pacific octopus calls the Jules Verne Gallery home. Named after the author of the book “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” this area features strange creatures of the deep.

And, of course, there is Penguin Island, where guests can watch the 15 resident penguins swim in their tank from a 20-foot underwater viewing area.

In addition to the permanent exhibits, the aquarium also has temporary exhibits, featuring topics such as “Frogs: Nature’s Messengers” and “Journey of Survival: The Story of Turtles.” These usually are open during the early part of the year.

The aquarium also conducts camps in conjunction with a partnership with the New Jersey Academy of Aquatic Sciences.

“These are summer programs where children can learn about topics such as conservation and marine biology,” she said.

“The experiences that are here are fun for everyone in the family,” Horishny emphasized, “from grandma and grandpa, mom and dad, to teens, tweens and the littlest ones.”

Right now Adventure Aquarium is celebrating the opening of the new and revitalized Hippo Haven. With the new habitat, visitors to the aquarium will be able to come nose-to-nose with the hippos both above and below the water.

Through the efforts of the design and production studio, Mousetrappe, the upper viewing area has been transformed using lighting, projection and an original musical score. Created to represent a “day in the life on an African river,” the new experience shows the hippos alongside other animals and the environments common to their habitats in the wild.

“We listened to our guests who wanted more color and excitement and energy in the exhibit. Basically, we set the stage for a unique experience for our guests,” Horishny said.

The lower viewing area incorporates a 60,000-gallon pool where the hippos swim and guests can watch from the other side of the glass, inches away from these huge, but oddly graceful, creatures.

“Our guests have commented how awesome it is to come nose-to-nose with hippos,” Horishny noted.

Although an aquarium might seem an unlikely place to find two Nile hippos, Ann Marie Bisagno, supervisor of birds and mammals, said, “Our philosophy at Adventure Aquarium is that everthing needs water to live, not just fish and aquatic animals. We’re trying to expand people’s thoughts about aquariums.”

Bisagno, who works with the hippos, explained that the mammals cannot live without water. They need it not just for drinking but also for their habitat.

“Drought and exposure can kill hippos in the wild. Hippos are considered semi-aquatic animals and can spend up to 16 hours in the water. Their skin is thick, but the outer layer is susceptible to sunburn and dehydration,” she said.

She explained that, in the wild, hippos are more active at night, which is their grazing time, and during the day, they are protected in the water.

“They can travel up to 6 miles at a time to graze,” Bisagno said.

Button and Genny are both teenagers – Button is 17 and Genny is 13 – and, like teenagers, they pack away the food. In order to maintain their weight, they eat 70,000 calories a day. Hippos are herbivores, so their diet includes hay, produce and grains.

“We don’t want them to become overweight. They are weighed on a weekly basis so that they can maintain their girlish figures,” Bisagno added.

The two are not only different in age, but in personality, too.

“Genny is more curious and playful, while Button is mellow and tends to watch things more closely,” she said. “We take this into account when we’re training them.”

Bisagno is quick to add that the contact they have with the hippos is considered protected contact.

“There is always a barrier between us and the hippos. We never place ourselves in harm’s way,” she said.

“We consider the hippos trained and conditioned, but never tame,” she added.

“We can touch them and train them to help us to better take care of them,” Bisagno explained. “They are trained to open their mouths so we can check their teeth and we can file their teeth. Hippos are very smart and they are happy to be trained. They like to learn new things and if they get bored they’ll just walk away.”

As part of Hippo Haven, guests will have an opportunity to adopt a hippo through the Turgwe Hippo Trust in Zimbabwe, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting and conserving wild African hippos.

Although hippos are not endangered, they are considered threatened because poachers hunt them for meat, hide and the ivory in their teeth.

“The ivory in their teeth is actually more sought after than elephant ivory because it doesn’t yellow,” Bisagno said.

To learn more about Genny and Button and all the exhibits at Adventure Aquarium, visit