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For The Oklahoma City Zoo, Hippos Are A Christmas Tradition


Gayla Peevey's life changed when she was 10 years old. It was 1953, and she had a record contract with Columbia Records. The label flew her from her home in Oklahoma to New York City to record some songs. And the first piece of music they handed to the young singer became a hit.


GAYLA PEEVEY: (Singing) I want a hippopotamus for Christmas. Only a hippopotamus will do. Don't...

SIEGEL: Back in Oklahoma, the local newspaper and the Oklahoma City Zoo, which didn't have a hippo, got an idea. They'd capitalize on the song's popularity and their hometown star to raise money to get one.

And Gayla Peevey joins us now to tell the rest of this story and how she helped welcome the zoo's latest hippo addition this week. Welcome to the program.

PEEVEY: Well, thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

SIEGEL: And take us back to 1953 and a statewide fund drive that began encouraging children to send in dimes to buy a hippopotamus. Was it clear in that campaign that the hippo was for the zoo, or did you think it was going to be your own hippopotamus?

PEEVEY: It was presented as being for me. It was called the Gayla Peevey hippo fund. And every day in the newspaper there was a little circle where you could tape your dime or your quarter and mail it in. But of course the zoo and the newspaper were sponsoring the fund and knew what the end result would be.

SIEGEL: Did your family have a large swimming pool at the time?

PEEVEY: We did not.

SIEGEL: Did not.

PEEVEY: And that hippo, a Nile hippo, would not have fit in our bathtub.


SIEGEL: Now, you didn't write the song about wanting a hippo, but did you actually like hippos before singing about wanting one for Christmas?

PEEVEY: Actually, I never gave it a thought before the song. But since then that little song has created a platform for me to speak out on behalf of hippos and conservation and be connected with zoos. So it's - yeah, now I really love hippos.

SIEGEL: This week you sang the song at the Oklahoma City Zoo to welcome Francesca, a 26-year-old pygmy hippopotamus which just moved there from the San Diego Zoo. What was that event like?

PEEVEY: So it was quite a celebration. It was a big reveal. And many, many, many people came that they had to turn people away. It was a huge response. And it was just an exciting event.

SIEGEL: You know, personally, I only learned when I traveled to Africa that hippos are really very dangerous. They are these creatures that aren't really - they can't really live in the water. They just - they can float there and stay cool, but they go out to eat on land. And if you find yourself between a hippo and the water you're in trouble. I mean...

PEEVEY: You better run (laughter).

SIEGEL: You'd better run. Good luck.

PEEVEY: They're presented so often as jolly, round, smiling animals in cartoons and so forth, but that's far from the truth.

SIEGEL: Well, it seems like this completely coincidental connection between you and hippos has worked out pretty well over all these years.

PEEVEY: It really has. If I have any legacy, what more fun legacy than to have a song that makes people happy and children dance around and bring a little cheer to the season?

SIEGEL: Well, Gayla Peevey, thank you very much for talking with us. And would you want to sing a few bars of it before you go?

PEEVEY: (Laughter) I'd be happy to. You want to join me?

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

PEEVEY: (Singing) I want a hippopotamus for Christmas. Only a hippopotamus will do. There you go.


PEEVEY: (Singing) Don't want a doll, no dinky tinker toy. I want a hippopotamus...


SIEGEL: Well, thank you for that. That was the best hippo story of the year by far that we got here.


PEEVEY: (Singing) Hippopotamus for Christmas. I don't... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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