Almost daily since Riverbanks Zoo opened in 1974, keepers entering the hippo barn were greeted by Montgomery's happy hello – an ear-splitting honk, followed by a grunt, capped by a snort.
“No matter how many times you heard that sound, it made you chuckle,” said John Davis, curator of mammals at the zoo.
But Wednesday, the hippo barn was silent. Weakened by a series of ailments, Montgomery was euthanized by zoo staff Tuesday.
Montgomery was one of the original animals when Riverbanks opened April 25, 1974. His death leaves two remaining originals – a flamingo and a white-faced saki monkey.
“Just as we celebrate the birth of the new lion cubs and flamingo chicks, we also mourn the death of Montgomery,” said Riverbanks executive director Satch Krantz. “Monty held a special place in the hearts of many people throughout the community, and he will be sorely missed.”
Montgomery was born Sept. 17, 1972 at the Memphis Zoo, moved to Riverbanks as a youngster, and grew to an estimated 4,200 pounds. A female hippo joined him briefly, but Montgomery had the hippo pool to himself much of his life.
In terms of captive hippos, he was upper middle-aged. It's not unusual for zoo hippos to live into their 40s, Davis said.
In recent months, a multitude of health problems besieged Montgomery, according to Riverbanks veterinarian Keith Benson.
He had arthritic ankles, digestive problems and an abscess on his chin.
Hippos “are just so massive, when they have challenges, they're difficult to manage,” Benson said.
In recent weeks, Montgomery's quality of life slipped to the point the zoo staff decided euthanasia was the most humane option. The decision came with a lot of heartache.
“We consider all of the animals our favorites,” Davis said. “But without a doubt, Montgomery was the most favorite for a lot of keepers. He was just an easy-going guy.”
Strong, agile and extremely territorial, hippos in the wild are aggressive and dangerous. But Montgomery never was aggressive toward zookeepers, who dealt with him from the other side of steel barriers.
He enjoyed being brushed in places he couldn't reach on his own. And he was the star of the members' night behind-the-scenes tours.
“He'd open that huge gaping mouth, ready to accept whatever produce you threw in there,” Davis said.