How a Hippo Became a Honorary Florida Citizen

Date Visited: 12/9/2019

Before telling you about the rest of our trip to the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs State Park we need talk about the elephant, or rather I should say the Hippopotamus in the room.

Lu, short for Lucifer, has been a resident of the park since 1964. He was born on January 26, 1960 at the San Diego Zoo making him 61 years old, and currently the oldest hippopotamus in captivity. Lu is also the only honorary citizen hippopotamus in the state of Florida. How he became a citizen is an interesting story that we learned about on the day we visited the park.

When Lu was purchased by Ivan Tors Animal Actors he along with the other animal actors were housed at the springs during the winter. At this time the springs were privately owned, and when the Ivan Tors group moved, Lu and several other animals were left behind. In 1989 when the State of Florida purchased the springs plans were made to remove all non-native animals from the park as they did not coincide with the “real Florida” wildlife theme. One by one the animals were sold and relocated, but when it came time to find a home for Lu the Homosassa Community came together and started a petition to keep their beloved Lu at the park. When this campaign reached the desk of then Governor Lawton Chiles, Chiles declared Lu an honorary citizen of the State of Florida and Lu as continued to live at the springs ever since.

At the time that I am writing this story (August 2021) Lu, although suffering the ailments of age was still living and entertaining visitors to the park, but most definitely showing sins of his extreme age. Hippos in the wild live to be 30-40 and most hippos in captivity live between 40 and 50 years. Lu is one of the few hippopotamus in captivity to break the 60+ age barrier which is a testament to the fine care he receives at the park.

As you pass Lu’s enclosure make note of the bright yellow “Splatter Zone” warnings posted in various spots. Lu, like all other hippos like to mark their territories by spinning their tails and flinging hippo dung on unsuspecting tourist. Yep, animals can do the strangest things at times.

All of the animals at the park are ambassadors for their species having been rehabilitated or abandoned and for one reason or another incapable of surviving by themselves in the wild. A number of Florida natives, such as Bald Eagles, Florida Black Bears and even the one of the most endangered species in the world, the Florida Panther, live out their days as advocates for animal conservation efforts.

There is also a large number of birds in residence and capturing the unique and sometimes quirky behaviors of these feathered beauties was as much fun as avoiding the splatter zone surrounding Lu’s paddock. It almost seemed as if every critter was competing for five minutes of YouTube fame.

Seriously, how can you not fall in love with the art of photographing these guys and gals.

The spring at Homosassa is one of Florida’s first-magnitude springs and home to 34 species of fish as well as river otters, alligators, and manatees. There are two ways to enter the park and I suggest taking the boat ride down Pepper Creek that is offered at the main entrance and visitor center located alongside Hwy 19. It’s a short ride, but you will have the chance to view native wildlife in a natural setting.

Inside the park the Fish Bowl Underwater Observatory floats in the main spring and offers a unique viewing experience.

As we descended the stairs we were greeted with an underwater view of the fish and manatees.¬†Immediately we were taken by the sheer number of Snook that had taken winter refuge in the warm waters of the spring. Every underwater window had it’s view obscured by thousands of fish lips and tails as they hung lazily in the waters surrounding the observation capsule.

As a Florida fishermen, both hubby and I found it difficult to tear ourselves away from the view. Snook, is not only our favorite fish to eat, but also the one that eludes us the most on our fishing adventures. Each year we pay an extra $10 a piece to legally harvest Snook, but year after year catching one in the narrow slot limit has proven to be the bain of our existence.

We spent a few hours at the park, enjoying the beautiful weather and studying the behaviors of the various mammals, birds, and reptiles in residence. Although not a large animal park, we both felt this one was well worth the trip.

Our next stop was a short and sweet visit to the Yulee Sugar Mill to learn about it’s Civil War connection, but we’ll save that story for next week. Until then…

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park 
4150 S. Suncoast Blvd. 
Homosassa, FL 34446 

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