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The Remarkable Early 20th Century Plan to Farm Hippopotamuses in the US

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It may seem like a ludicrous idea today, but if this early 20th century food movement had been successful, the swamps of Louisiana might be filled with hippos, who would feast on the region's invasive water hyacinths and provide meat for America's tables.

Jon Mooallem's fascinating long read American Hippopotamus, which is available through the Atavist and as a Kindle Single, details the circumstances that led up to this remarkable proposal. In 1910, the United States, with its growing population and many of its native animals hunted to extinction, was facing a meat shortage. Frederick Russell Burnham, a famed American scout, had a novel idea to beef up the country's dwindling meat supply: import animals from Africa. Burnham is the star of Mooaellem's piece and with good reason; he was a highly skilled scout whose exploits the Matabele Wars and Second Boer War were legendary, and he was a key inspiration for the Boy Scouts of America. While settled in a secluded part of Pasadena, Burnham began to think about repopulating the landscape with the animals he had encountered during his time in southern Africa. In 1910, the New York Independent published his article "Transplanting African Animals."

Burnham's earlier attempt to advocate for the importation of African animals had fallen apart, despite support from President Theodore Roosevelt. But in 1910, Burnham's quest lined up nicely with the designs of Congressman Robert Foligny Broussard, a Democrat from New Iberia, Louisiana. Broussard's district had a peculiar problem that he believed Burnham's import scheme might be able to solve. That problem was the water hyacinth, a flower that had been brought to New Orleans by the Japanese delegation to an international cotton exposition in 1884. The asexually reproducing plant proved a menace, clogging up waterways used by cargo ships and causing the deaths of numerous fish. Mooallem writes that Broussard was a politician who "liked to plug up problems with big solutions." And he saw the introduction of hippos as killing two oxpeckers with one stone: the hippos, Broussard had been assured, would happily chow down on the water hyacinth and serve as a new source of meat for the country.

Broussard introduced H.R. 23261, commonly known as the hippo bill, "to appropriate $250,000 for the importation of useful new animals into the United States." Along with Fritz Duquesne (more on him later), Broussard and Burnham cofounded the New Food Supply Society, a fledgling group to investigate and promote the idea of importing hippos and other African animals, and sent Duquesne on a fact-finding mission to Louisiana. The Washington Post assured the public that the US would see shipments of hippos within a few years.

However, those shipments never arrived. Despite the initial burst of energy and press excitement, the movement to import and ranch the hippopotamus fizzled out. Burnham saw the beginning of the end when one congressman argued that unscrupulous hunters would sneak onto the farms and hunt them for trophies. The Department of Agriculture would eventually decide that the way to answer the question of the meat supply was not to diversify the animals on our plate but to increase the land available for beef. Instead of the swamps becoming home to hippos, many would be converted to beef-friendly agricultural land.

Mooallem's piece actually goes beyond the question of hippo meat and focuses on Burnham and Duquesne, who were themselves sort of American hippopotamuses: larger-than-life figures who felt at home on the African continent. Long before they became allies over the hippo proposal, Burnham and Duquesne had served on opposite sides of the Second Anglo-Boer and were actually tasked with killing one another. They knew and respected each other by reputation; Duquesne, a Huguenot by upbringing, was known as the "Black Panther" and his daring escapes and sometimes fictitious escapades made him a romantic figure. But in the years following the formation of the New Food Supply Society, Duquesne's longstanding hatred of the British prompted him to become a spy and saboteur for the German forces. He had a deeply bizarre career that includes faking his own death (and then undoing it), posing as an Australian infantryman and giving lectures on his daring feats against the Germans, a daring escape from Bellevue Hospital, and the formation of his very own spy ring during World War II. Burnham, on the other hand, would eventually become wealthy after striking oil, but continued to dedicate his life and activities to conservation and a sense of preparedness, the same ideals that made him dream of hippos in the American South.


Hippo photo by Peter Harrison.

[American Hippopotamus]