Billie’s looking smiles better thanks to historic hippo makeover: image00021

01 May 2024

Billie’s looking smiles better thanks to historic hippo makeover

Museums and galleries Arts

His friendly face and super-sized smile have made him a favourite fixture for visitors to Leeds Discovery Centre.

But as he approaches 100 years old, the decades have finally started to take their toll on much-loved Billie the hippo, who has begun to show some inevitable signs of wear and tear.

That’s why experts from Leeds and Lancashire teamed up this week to give the mammoth mammal a much-needed makeover as he prepares to go on display alongside his prehistoric ancestor.

Formerly a resident at London Zoo, Billie was one of the attraction’s biggest stars in the late 1920s, a time when zoos became hugely popular and would strive to collect all manner of exotic and unusual animals from around the world.

Sadly, records show Billie later died from an intestinal obstruction on July 12, 1932 at the age of just seven.

At that time, deceased animals were often purchased by taxidermists, which meant Billie’s remains were stuffed and mounted before being acquired by Leeds City Museum in 1938.

Weighing a hefty 170kg and mounted on wheels, Billie went on display and even survived a wartime bombing which destroyed much of the Leeds collection at the old museum site on Park Row, before he was eventually relocated to the Leeds Discovery Centre.

More recently, curators noticed that some of the vintage paintwork and plaster on the hippo’s face and stomach had begun to crack and peel, and set about restoring Billie to his former glory in time for his 100th birthday next year.

Lucie Mascord, a specialist conservation officer at Lancashire County Council's Conservation Studios made the trip to Leeds to carry out the work.

She said: "Taxidermy like this can still hold significant educational value. Few people have seen a hippo, let alone one unsubmerged by water.

“Working on a full mount hippo is a rare opportunity for a natural history conservator. I am very lucky to be able to take my time to learn more about the animal and to have the honour of returning this hippo to its full majesty so it can be shared with many more people for years to come."

In the wild, hippos like Billie are one of the world’s largest mammals, weighing around three-and-a-half tonnes and spending most of their time in the rivers and lakes of Africa.

When conservation work on Billie has been completed, he will eventually go on display at Leeds City Museum next to the famous Armley Hippo, the bones of an extinct species of hippo which lived near what is now the Armley Gyratory around 130,000 years ago. The bones were found in 1851 by workmen digging clay.

Clare Brown, Leeds Museums and Galleries' curator of natural sciences, said: “Billie is certainly one the most recognisable specimens in our taxidermy collection and visitors are always curious to see such a complete example of a hippo up close and get a sense of how huge and impressive these animals really are.

“It’s great that we’ve teamed up with our colleagues from Lancashire and we’d like to thank them for helping us bring Billie back to his best before he becomes part of a display which tells the story of how these remarkable creatures and their habitats have evolved over thousands of years.

“Historic specimens like Billie can also teach us a great deal about how we can protect and conserve hippos and other vulnerable species today.”

The conservation work has been generously supported by the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society and Arts Council England.

The Leeds Discovery Centre is home to more than a million objects and is used to store parts of the Leeds collection which are not currently on display, spanning tens of millions of years of world history.

Councillor Jonathan Pryor, Leeds City Council’s deputy leader and executive member for economy, culture and education, said: “Leeds is fortunate to be home to a world class museums collection, filled with an astonishing array of objects and specimens spanning millions of years of world history.

“The painstaking work which takes place behind the scenes to keep the collection in the best possible condition is what makes our museums and exhibitions so impressive and memorable for visitors.”

Leeds Discovery Centre is free to visit by appointment. For more details on how to book, visit:


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Leeds City Council Communications team