Kerbe Shephard and her family decided to name their baby girl Fiona after the infant was born premature but with a fighting spirit, just like Fiona the hippo

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baby Fiona meets Fiona the hippo
Credit: Kerbe Shephard

The Cincinnati Zoo has always held a special place in Kerbe Shephard's heart — the Ohio native grew up visiting the zoo — but the arrival of her daughter has made the park more important to her than ever before.

Of course, as a frequent guest of the Cincinnati Zoo, Shephard is also a fan of Fiona the hippo — a hippo who was born six weeks premature at the zoo in 2017 and overcame the odds and won hearts by growing into the playful, healthy sweetheart she is today.

Shephard's first intro to Fiona was from a book her 3-year-old son Bryce checked out of the library when the family lived in Florida. Once Shephard, her husband David, and Bryce moved back to Ohio, they were eager to meet the hippo in person.

"She is such a success story, and we fell even more in love with her when we met her at the zoo. Every time we have seen her, she has been active, swimming, and loving on her mama!" Shephard tells PEOPLE about her family's visits to see the hippo. "The last time we were there, Bryce said. 'Mommy, I could stay here and watch Fiona ALL day!'"

Now Fiona is part of Shephard's everyday life in a way. The pediatric occupational therapist gave birth to a baby girl on July 4, who she named Fiona after the Cincinnati Zoo hippo played a special role in her child's birth story.

baby Fiona meets Fiona the hippo
Credit: Kerbe Shephard

"Bryce has been excited about his baby sister since he found out about my pregnancy," Shephard says, and one way Bryce showed that enthusiasm was by coming up with names for his future sister. After a March 2021 trip to the zoo with his dad and some friends, Bryce believed he came up with the "perfect" name for the baby.

"Bryce was so excited to tell me when I got home from work that he knew the perfect name for his baby sister. 'Fiona! Just like that cute hippo!' he said," Shephard adds. "My husband and I laughed, 'Ok, buddy! That sounds great…we'll add it to the list!' — knowing that we had other plans for names and we certainly wouldn't name our daughter after a hippo."

But then, on July 4, when Shephard, her family, and some friends were once again visiting the Cincinnati Zoo, Shephard started experiencing contractions and cramps that "got progressively worse." She thought the pain could be Braxton-Hicks contractions, but after her discomfort increased, she and her husband decided to leave the zoo and head to the hospital.

Several hours after arriving at the hospital, Shephard went into active labor over a month before her due date.

baby Fiona meets Fiona the hippo
Credit: Kerbe Shephard

"Because our baby girl was breech and I was now in active labor, it was suddenly emergent that I have c-section ASAP. All of the emotions set in, we got scrubbed in, and we realized we were having this baby! Fiona Caroline was born at 11:33 pm on the 4th of July at 5 lbs 11 oz and 19 inches long — a pretty good size for a premie," she says of the eventful Fourth of July birth.

Shephard and her husband ended up choosing the name Fiona after meeting their baby girl for the first time.

"The first time I got to hold her, I was being wheeled to recovery. I said hi to my baby girl, and she immediately began squirming and trying her hardest to open those most perfect eyes. She wiggled them open and locked eyes with me — it was the most amazingly beautiful moment that I will never forget. She knew my voice and was comforted by her Mama — again, just like the beautiful bond between Fiona the hippo and her mother," Shephard recalls.

RELATED VIDEO: Fiona the Hippo Catches Raindrops in Her Mouth at the Cincinnati Zoo

"We also knew at that moment her name couldn't be anything besides Fiona. It just FIT; it was fate," she adds.

The name Fiona fit not only because Shephard's new daughter instantly adored her mom and was born after a day at the zoo, but also because, like the hippo, Fiona the baby girl was born early and "with complications that we knew she would overcome," according to her mother.

"Over the next couple of days, we realized just how blessed we were with this girl. It was confirmed that she was born with Trisomy 21, or Down Syndrome. With this can come a plethora of complications, but Fiona has proven to be strong and healthy," Shephard says. "She does have a congenital heart defect that will be monitored for closure or the need for surgery; but other than that, there are no significant complications. She just needs to be loved a little extra and helped along the way."

baby Fiona meets Fiona the hippo
Credit: Kerbe Shephard

Shephard's family recently took Fiona to the Cincinnati Zoo to get a little of that extra love from the child's namesake. On August 15, Fiona the infant met Fiona the hippo.

"Bryce was so excited to make the introduction…even though Fiona (the baby) slept through the introduction! Fiona the hippo was dancing through the water and playing with her mother— really putting on a show!" Shephard says of the first meeting. "Our Fiona still sleeps most of the day, so we were happy to get a membership to the zoo so we can bring her back and capture an 'awake' moment! But for now, we know our Fiona was perfectly named."

"Just like the hippo Fiona, our motto is 'You've got this!'" Shephard adds. "We are so in love. We hope this story brings joy to someone and grows awareness for the Down Syndrome population, not as a negative connotation or something to feel 'sorry' about…but to realize the potential of these awesome individuals! The sky is the limit for all as long as they are given the opportunity to reach for the stars."