She has spent more than half her life barefoot and pregnant in Fresno.
Bubbles, 30, is the heroine of this valley tale, the long-suffering mother of 17. One might call her 29-year-old husband Bulgie the heavy, but it takes two to tango, so that wouldn't be quite fair.
Bubbles and Bulgie have lived since 1956 in a 40-acre Fresno housing addition called Roeding Park Zoo. Their life together has been a simple one, but for the fact they are one of--but not the--most prolific set of parents in the United States. Their 17th issue came forth late last month, and there is no indication that Bubbles and Bulgie plan to slow down.
"They don't know the meaning of the word abstinence," said Dr. Paul Chaffee, Roeding Park Zoo director, who delivered Bubbles and Bulgies' first child in 1961. Coincidentally, that was Chaffee's first hippopotamus delivery, too.
"When I took the job as veterinarian for the zoo, I wasn't very familiar with big, wild animals. I thought, 'What if I get out there and some hippo has labor problems?' That's exactly what happened," Chaffee said.
Unfortunately, Bubbles' "immense" first calf was stillborn, but she has more than made up for the loss in the ensuing years.
"We got better at it and after the first one she really got the hang of things," Chaffee said. "Each time she becomes more efficient as a mother. Now she has them all by herself."
Past middle age (for a hippo,) Bubbles weighs about 5,500 pounds. Her new baby is a diminutive 80 or 90 pounds; its exact weight and sex cannot be determined until it gets a little more independent of its mother. In about four months, when it has reached the 400-pound range, it will be shipped off to another zoo or animal attraction. Its 15 surviving brothers and sisters have ended up in such faraway places as Grand Prairie, Tex., San Diego and Marine World/Africa USA.
"So far, so good, but sometimes we almost wish they wouldn't have any more," Chaffee said.
It seems that even after all these years Bubbles still drives Bulgie crazy with desire. To complicate matters, she is at her most attractive--and fertile--about 10 days after giving birth.
"We separated them once," said Chaffee, recalling a time when Bulgie's ardor was premature and Bubbles wasn't in the mood. "But the male kept trying to climb the wall to get to her. He got up on his hind legs and put his front legs on the wall, trying to jump over. That was really something to see."
If Bulgie does impregnate Bubbles again, it will be several months before zoo officials will have confirmation. "We usually don't know if she is pregnant until about two months before the birth," said Chaffee. "Because of a hippo's bulk you just can't detect a thing until then. Also, she stays in the water a lot, so we don't see that much of her."