Meet Jessica, the World’s Most Famous and Friendly Hippo

In 2000, Tonie and Shirley Joubert’s lives changed forever during the floods that ravaged parts of Mozambique and South Africa. While walking along the banks of the Blyde River near their home, Tonie found a small hippo who was only a few hours old. She had been swept away in the flood.

Tonie and Shirley Joubert with Jessica the Hippo
Source: Facebook

Tonie and Shirley took the baby hippo in to help nurse her back to health and named her Jessica. Her chances of survival in the wild were low, so Jessica became part of their family. Soon Jessica’s story became so widespread that she is now the most famous hippo in the world.

Horrible Floods

In early 2000, parts of Mozambique and South Africa were devastated by floods. People remember this time by the image of a woman who gave birth to her daughter in a tree in Mozambique before being rescued. Meanwhile, further downstream, a mother hippo had also given birth to a daughter.

Jessica is looking from inside Blyde River
Source: Facebook

The baby hippo was swept away on the Blyde River because of the strong waters. She had been born only a few hours earlier and was quickly separated from her mother. The small animal tried to swim until she washed up on the shore. She was clinging to life and desperate for someone to help her.

He Spotted a Baby Hippo

The baby hippo still had her umbilical cord attached to her when she washed up on the shore. She was weak and exhausted. Tonie and Shirley Joubert lived next to the Blyde River and heard a crunching noise on their lawn. Shirley looked around and spotted what was making the sound.

A guest is feeding Jessica on the banks of Blyde River
Source: Facebook

Tonie and Shirley looked around and suddenly realized they were looking at a small hippo calf. They walked over to the animal, which tried to get up but was too weak to stand. She had no energy, and the couple knew they needed to help her. She was traumatized by the ordeal.

Rushing to Save Her

Tonie brought the hippo home to his wife, Shirley, and knew she needed milk because she was so small. She couldn’t drink cow’s milk, so he prepared formula from egg yolks, cream, and full cream cow’s milk to create a substitute for breast milk. The hippo couldn’t get enough of the milk.

Jessica on the banks of Blyde River
Source: Facebook

Tonie and Shirley decided to name the hippo Jessica, who was only 35 pounds. She was the smallest hippo they had ever seen, and in just 24 hours, Jessica consumed ten percent of her body weight in milk. Tonie and Shirley quickly realized they would have their hands full with Jessica.

Low Chances of Survival

Because Jessica was separated from her mother just a few hours after birth, her chances of survival in the wild were low because she needed milk and constant care. When they found Jessica, her umbilical cord was still attached, which had disastrous effects on her nerves. She wouldn’t survive long in the wild.

Jessica is getting a carrot to eat

Tonie and Shirley decided to keep Jessica as a member of their family. Although caring for her as a baby wasn’t too hard, they knew things would be more complicated as she grew. The average adult female hippo weighs around 3,000 pounds, but the family couldn’t let her go.

She Fit Right in

Once Jessica started to gain strength, she followed Shirley and Tonie persistently. She woke them up whenever she was hungry to have a bottle. The Jouberts had a few dogs, and Jessica quickly became friends with Za Za, the Rottweiler, and the bull terriers.

Jessica is looking from inside the lake

Jessica and the dogs stuck together, and she started to act like them. She was part of the family and roamed around the house freely until she started to get bigger. She and her furry friends would watch anything unusual with great concentration. It was adorable to watch.

Her New Family

Although hippos are the deadliest land mammal, Jessica was gentle and friendly. She grew quickly and was happy receiving warmth and affection from the Jouberts and anyone that visited. Hippos are social animals and stay with their mothers for four years, but Jessica only knew life with her humans.

Jessica the Hippo is getting food to eat

Jessica wouldn’t have known how to act in the wild without her mother. The Jouberts quickly realized they would be her parents and were in it for the long haul. Luckily, Jessica loved her new family. She never showed signs of aggression despite her incredible strength.

A Movie Star

Jessica’s story spread quickly, and she was already famous by the time she was one. After hearing about the hippo, producers hired Jessica to star in the South African movie Mr. Bones. In April 2001, she became a movie star.

Jessica the Hippo in the Lake

It was easy for Jessica to work with humans because of her gentle nature. She was a born actress, and the movie made her a worldwide star. Although Jessica gained fame, she remained at Tonie and Shirley’s home. Jessica taught them to appreciate hippos.

A Tough Position

Tonie was an honorary game ranger, so he knew how to care for Jessica when they found her. Caring for and welcoming her into their family changed Tonie’s perspective about hippos. He found a special appreciation for the animal and wanted to protect them.

serving Jessica her afternoon tea

Therefore, he was in a tough position in 2004 when he was called to shoot a hippo that had fallen into a concrete reservoir. Instead of killing the lost animal, Tonie tried to save it. He constructed a ramp, and the hippo climbed out by the following morning.

A Special Visitor

The rescued hippo returned to the Blyde River. Three weeks later, a group of wild hippos and the save hippo turned up to visit Jessica. While most of the hippos left the next morning, one stayed behind with Jessica in the pool near the Jouberts’ home.

Jessica getting her afternoon snack of alfalfa

Tonie was shocked when he realized it was the hippo he had rescued from the reservoir. He recognized it by the marks on its left side. The hippo didn’t seem to be going anywhere, so Tonie and Shirley named him Charlie.

Attracting Attention

Jessica’s story gained the attention of Animal Planet, who wanted to film a documentary about her. The producers were even more excited when the Jouberts told them about Charlie. In June 2004, Animal Planet arrived to start filming the hour-long documentary.

Jessica the Hippo in the Lake
Source: YouTube

The crew captured footage of Jessica, Charlie, and the Jouberts for 18 months. They shared their story and daily life caring for two hippos. After a year and a half, the crew finished filming and departed. While it was nice to return to regular life, something had changed.

A Tragic Discovery

Around the same time the Animal Planet crew left, Charlie disappeared. He went back to living with other hippos in the wild. The Jouberts thought they would never see him again until Tonie received sad news in July 2006. He got a photo of a hippo that had been shot.

Jessica is being fed green beans
Source: YouTube

Tonie and Shirley realized the dead hippo was Charlie from his marks. Everyone mourned the loss of Charlie, who had become so tame while living with the Jouberts. He protected Jessica and once saved her life when a pregnant wild hippo attacked her.

She Lost Her First Love

Although Jessica didn’t know Charlie had died, Tonie and Shirley could tell she was sad when he left. She seemed heartbroken by his absence because Charlie was her first love. He kept her safe from aggressive wild hippos, and it took a while for her to feel better again.

Jessica and Tonie

Jessica has her own area in the Blyde River in front of the Jouberts’ home where other wild hippos can visit her. She is fearless with them most of the time, and they don’t bother her. She made many new friends in Charlie’s absence.

Everyone Was Talking About Jessica

Jessica’s story was well-known in the area, and several media outlets wanted to share her story. She appeared in several SABC programs. SKY news and BBC news filmed segments about Jessica, and she appeared on National Geographic three times. She was also in a Discovery Channel special.

Jessica the Hippo in the water

Everyone was fascinated by her because hippos are usually dangerous and aggressive, but Jessica was the opposite. Her story was told to people all over the world. In June 2007, Jessica’s Animal Planet documentary premiered, making her an international star.

She Got Sick

Jessica had been healthy since Tonie and Shirley took her in but fell ill for the first time in 2007. After doing some tests, the vet prescribed her antibiotics. Unfortunately, the infection was resistant, so she needed stronger antibiotics through daily injections.

Jessica entering the water
Source: YouTube

The regular needles bent due to her thick skin, leaving them no choice but to dart her. Tonie and Shirley felt horrible but knew it was the only way she would get better. When the vet came for her injection, the Jouberts hid so Jessica wouldn’t associate them with pain.

Hard to Handle

Tonie and Shirley felt horrible for not being with Jessica when she got her injections. They felt like they were deserting her, but they had no choice. Tonie thought about how scared Jessica must have been without them. She hated the darts and collapsed after the first one.

Tonie Joubert
Source: YouTube

Jessica had stopped eating, so they visited her frequently. The couple noticed she wasn’t improving and decided to bring her into the house to keep a close eye on her. After the fifth dart, Jessica’s health improved, and she started eating again.

She Loves Attention

Once Jessica felt better, she returned to the river. The Jouberts were delighted to see her healthy again. Although she lived with wild hippos, she always returned to the house for treats. She was very affectionate with the Jouberts and hated being left alone.

Feeding Jessica
Source: YouTube

When the Jouberts would leave for a weekend, Jessica wouldn’t eat while they were away. They would feed her and spend extra time with her when they returned until she fell asleep. Jessica loved the attention and didn’t like when they left her even for a day or two.

Her Favorite Treat

When Jessica was still young, Tonie had to wean her off the formula. He experimented with various teas, finding Jessica was a huge fan of Rooibos. It became her favorite treat that she still enjoys daily. Tonie said Jessica enjoys it warm with a bit of brown sugar.

Jessica and Shirley
Source: YouTube

She gets a bottle of tea with breakfast, lunch, and dinner and nudges the couple for a bottle before bedtime. Tonie said the tea helps Jessica fall asleep on their veranda with their dogs. She also likes cooked sweet potatoes, which visitors feed her next to the river.

History Repeated Itself

When Jessica was 12, history repeated itself. The area had terrible floods and storms, causing another baby hippo to wash up on shore near the Jouberts’ home. This hippo was even smaller than Jessica when the couple found her, and it still had its umbilical cord.

Shirley feeding Jessica inside their house
Source: YouTube

The mother was nowhere to be found, so Tonie and Shirley took in their second baby hippo. They named him Richie and started giving him formula. While his story was just like Jessica’s, their situations were very different because Richie was a male.

They Couldn’t Release Him

Unlike Jessica, the Jouberts couldn’t leave Richie out at night because male hippos often visited Jessica at night. As a young male unprotected by his mother, one of the wild male hippos could have seen him as a threat and tried to kill him.

Jessica and Shirley
Source: BBC

Hippos are territorial, so the Jouberts didn’t want to take the risk of Richie being in danger. Tonie decided to keep Richie in an enclosure to be safe at night. Over time, Richie and Jessica bonded like mother and son. The two are playful and gentle with each other and visitors.

Two of a Kind

Jessica and Richie are exactly alike. They both love Rooibos, watching television, and listening to music with the Jouberts. Richie stole everyone’s hearts with his playful and curious nature. He and Jessica love interacting with visitors who give them tea and sweet potatoes.

Jessica the Hippo and Tonie

While it took a while, Richie finally understood that he needed Jessica for protection until he was old enough to defend himself. He became a strong boy over time and is still thriving under the care of the Jouberts. However, things haven’t always been smooth.

A Scary Encounter

Thousands of tourists come from all over to see Jessica and Richie at the Jouberts’ home. People can spend time with the hippos and pet them from a dock. While almost everyone has had fun experiences with Jessica and Richie, two women were horrified after their visit.

Tourists with Richie
Source: Pinterest

Natasha Vrany and her cousin, Belinda Newman, visited Jessica’s Place in 2021. The two were sitting on the Jouberts’ lawn when they saw a hippo run out of the water toward them. Vrany said the hippo pushed her to the ground, bit her legs, and threw her around “like a rag doll.”

A Horrific Attack

Vrany said she clawed at the hippo’s eyes to get free, but it started dragging her to the river. Tonie ran over to help and started hitting the hippo in the head. Meanwhile, Newman jumped on the hippo’s back to save her cousin. The hippo released Vrany and turned its attention to Newman.

Feeding Jessica

The hippo knocked Newman over and bit her stomach. Although she was injured, Vrany claimed she ran to the house to ask Shirley to bring a rifle outside before collapsing. She said when she woke up, Newman was standing over her, “holding her intestines to stay inside.”

Traumatic Experience

While waiting for an ambulance to arrive, Vrany claimed Tonie took Jessica inside the house to put her to bed. The paramedics took Vrany and Newman to a nearby hospital for emergency surgery. Vrany said it was “the most traumatic experience” of her life.

Visiting Jessica the Hippo

The two thought they were going to die from the attack. Vrany said Tonie didn’t have a weapon on him, so she felt safe sitting next to the river. But their fun day watching hippos turned into a nightmare that still haunts them.

They Blamed Richie

After the incident, Vrany said Richie was the hippo that attacked her and her cousin. However, Tonie refuted these claims saying another wild hippo was responsible for the attack. He knew Richie wouldn’t hurt anyone because they had never had issues with him or Jessica.

Jessica at the Lake

While Vrany said she and Newman had been sitting on the Jouberts’ property, Tonie reported the incident took place outside his premises. He said he hit the animal with a heavy rock after it grabbed Vrany. He hit the hippo above the eye where there was soft bone, which made the hippo drop her.

He Risked His Life

Tonie was horrified by the attack but saved Vrany’s life by hitting the wild hippo. He said he risked his life by stepping in. If Newman hadn’t jumped on the hippo, she wouldn’t have been attacked because Tonie got the hippo to drop Vrany.

Feeding Jessica
Source: Facebook

Tonie reported that the wild animal retreated to the river and disappeared after the attack. The Jouberts’ had never had an attack happen on their property. They considered Jessica and Richie their children and knew they weren’t responsible for the attack.

It Wasn’t Richie

When the wild hippo left, Tonie said he ran into the house to call an ambulance. He said Jessica and Richie were both inside, so they couldn’t have attacked Vrany and Newman. Tonie added that many wild hippos live along the Blyde River, and they can’t control them.

Giving Jessica Food
Source: Facebook

Vrany was outraged by Tonie’s claims. She couldn’t believe they were defending the hippos that could have killed her. While there have been some small incidents, Jessica and Richie have never charged at anyone to attack them. They are friendly and gentle.

She Left a Bad Review

After the incident, Vrany left a one-star review on TripAdvisor on the Jessica’s Place page. She detailed the traumatizing encounter and said negative things about Tonie and Shirley. Vrany warned people not to visit the hippos and blamed Tonie and Shirley for their lack of care.

Natasha Vrany says a hippo 'threw her around like a rag doll'

However, Tonie and Shirley insist Richie and Jessica weren’t responsible for the attacks. While many have felt outraged after hearing about Vrany’s experience, others do not believe Richie would hurt her. It must have been another wild hippo from the area.

A Close Call

In 2016, Cory Lee traveled to South Africa to see Jessica the hippo. He is in a wheelchair, which made things more challenging, but people helped guide his chair down to Jessica’s viewing platform. Once he was there, everyone took a turn feeding and petting Jessica.

Cory Lee and Jessica the Hippo

When it was Cory’s turn, he reached out to feed Jessica a potato, but he couldn’t get close enough to give her the snack. Jessica was hungry and lunged out of the water to take the potato. However, due to her massive size, she narrowly missed biting his foot, instead grabbing onto his wheelchair.

He Didn’t Blame Her

Jessica started pulling Cory’s chair toward the water, but Tonie jumped in to calm her and release the chair. Luckily, it worked, and Cory was fine, besides some teeth marks on his wheelchair. Cory thought Jessica just wanted the potato, and he couldn’t feed her fast enough.

Cory Lee and Jessica the Hippo

While many would blame Jessica for being aggressive, Cory had no bad feelings for her. He understood that although she was used to tourists, she was still a wild animal. People must know that there are risks when interacting with these animals.

Sensationalized Reports

In 2014, Stephen Jansen van Rensburg, who worked with Jessica, was injured after Jessica bit him. News reports sensationalized the story, saying, “His left thumb was hanging by the skin.” But van Rensburg later insisted the news reports were dramatic and factually incorrect.

Jessica the Hippo up close

Van Rensburg said he put his hand in Jessica’s mouth, and she closed it. Her tusk pierced his skin, but his thumb was not hanging. He said, “A small piece of skin is the only missing thing; it’s not that serious. It looked worse than it was.”

It Was an Accident

Van Rensburg said Jessica would never intentionally hurt someone, maybe by accident. He wished people would have stopped sensationalizing the incident. He knew Jessica meant no harm and shouldn’t have had his hand in her mouth. It wasn’t that serious.

Feeding Jessica the Hippo

Van Rensburg said even the doctor was shocked that he had been transported to the hospital with a helicopter. Tonie said the reports were “a lot of nonsense” and not true. He added that the paramedic dramatized everything and reported the injury as more severe than it was.

Positive Reviews

Although there have been a handful of negative reviews on TripAdvisor, most people share their positive experiences from visiting Jessica. The one-star reviews are mostly about poor roads, weird hours, and the “rude” owners. However, other people only have nice things to say.

Feeding Jessica the Hippo

Others have said they don’t feel it is ok to keep a hippo in captivity, but Jessica can leave whenever she wants. She chooses to stay close to the Jouberts and their home. Aside from the negative comments, many people love Jessica and Richie.

She Helped Him

In 2010, Jessica was used to help a man conquer his fear of hippos. A wild hippo had attacked James Brown while canoeing down the Zambezi River. He was terrified of the animal, so a Canadian television presenter flew Brown to meet Jessica.

Visiting Jessica the Hippo

Initially, Brown was fearful when he saw Jessica. However, his fears quickly melted as he started to feed her and give her tea. During the second visit, Jessica started to bond with Brown. She put her head on his feet as they sat by the riverbank. He noted the difference between Jessica and a wild hippo.

She’s Unique

Today Jessica is 22, and her story is truly incredible. She has met so many people who are amazed by her gentle and friendly nature. She might not know she is the world’s most famous hippo, but her story has captured the hearts of millions.

Jessica the Hippo
Source: Facebook

She and Richie are lucky that Tonie and Shirley stepped in to save and raise them. Although Jessica has broken many beds in the Jouberts’ home, they love and cherish her company. She is like their daughter, and they could not imagine their lives without her.