HOMOSASSA SPRINGS — Lu has always been the star of the show.
From his days as a young, sought-after talent, to his movie and TV career in the 60s, Lu knows a thing or two about captivating an audience.
Today, the aging actor is enjoying retirement in Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. But Father Time is catching up to him. Lu relies on medication and supervision from dedicated caretakers, such as Kate Spratt.
“We love Lu,” Spratt said, “and he’s one of our family members, and it’s pretty special to get to work with him.”
The feeling is mutual among Lu’s caretakers, but none have a bigger connection to him than James Curry. Curry says Lu is one of the biggest reasons why he got into this profession in the first place.
“I first met Lu in 1981 when I was three years old,” Curry said, “and I’ve been with him ever since, you know, from childhood all the way now to have worked—been able to have the pleasure of working with him for the last decade.”
Curry says words can’t describe how amazing it is to work with Lu. And Curry tries to see him at least once every day, whether that’s to help him eat, to check his health, or to just chat.
But Curry knows that if he visits Lu, he has to be careful where he stands. The last thing he wants is to be covered in hippo dung.
And with a 6,000-pound hippo like Lu, flying feces is a real threat.
“Hippopotamuses are very territorial animals,” Curry said. “One of the ways they claim their territory is by urinating and defecating on objects. So what they will do is begin to defecate and twirl their tale around real fast and then they will fling dung all over something.”
Luckily, Lu’s exhibit has a big yellow sign labeled “Splatter Zone” that warns any unsuspecting bystanders.
Of course, visitors don’t flock to the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park just to get covered in hippo feces. They come to see the oldest hippo in the Americas: Lu, which is short for Lucifer. The 60-year-old bull hippopotamus has lived at the park for almost his entire life.
Born in San Diego in 1960, Lu was relocated to Homosassa Springs to join the Ivan Tors Animal Actors. After nearly two decades of starring in movies and television specials, Lu suddenly faced eviction from his beloved home.
In 1989, the Florida Park Service took over the park and planned to move non-native species out of the state, which included Lu the Hippo. But Lu had become such a beloved member of the Homosassa community. So to keep Lu in the park, a petition was created and sent to Lawton Chiles, Florida’s Governor at the time.
“Governor Chiles agreed and actually made Lu an honorary Florida citizen,” Spratt said, “and that makes him the one and only Florida hippopotamus, and because he’s a citizen that’s how he’s allowed to stay in a Florida State Park as a non-native animal.”
Nearly three decades after becoming the only animal citizen in the state, Lu enjoys most of his days swimming in his enclosure, playing with his toys or entertaining visitors, though visitation is limited due to the pandemic.
Andrea Junkunc, who — like Curry and Spratt — is a Park Services Specialist, says the lack of a big audience doesn’t bother Lu too much.
“He has been in captivity his entire life,” Junkunc said. “He really does seem to like to interact with the visitors and he’s a big star here so everyone else’s name, they call out to him, sometimes he calls back. When he’s feeling really good he’ll kind of do like this weird somersaults where we can see his feet come up in the air.”
Indeed, Lu is living his best life. And while plans are still being made for his 61st birthday in January, feel free to stop by the state park and say hi to one of America’s most treasured animals.
Just don’t get caught in the Splatter Zone.