Don’t have a cow – the bizarre story of the Hippo Bill of 1910

In 1910, the United States, with its growing population and many of its native animals hunted to extinction, was facing a meat shortage.  People whispered about the prospect of eating dogs.

It became known in newspapers as the Meat Question, and two colorful characters, Frederick Russell Burnham and Fritz Duquesne, proposed hippopotamus as the Meat Answer.  The idea was to turn America into a nation of hippo ranchers.

Frederick Russell Burnham was the inspiration for both Indiana Jones and the Boy Scouts. Fritz Duquesne was more of a con man with many aliases.  His career highlights included gaining notoriety for creating the Duquesne Spy Ring and faking his own death (only to later change his mind and return).

Burnham reasoned that Europeans had imported cows, sheep, poultry and pigs to the United States.  Animals such as the ostriches in California and African camels in the southwest had already successfully adapted to their new American surroundings.

Burnham’s rationale attracted some notable names, including as William Newton Irwin, a USDA researcher who believed the sole reason Americans didn’t dine on hippopotamus was

“because nobody ever told them it was the proper thing to do.”

The introduction of hippo meat gained the attention of Louisiana Congressman Robert Broussard. Broussard’s interest was the result of a curious problem within his district. In 1884, a visiting Japanese delegation had brought water hyacinths to New Orleans as a gift.

After their introduction, the flowers quickly took over the surrounding rivers, killing many of the fish that inhabited them. Broussard’s solution to the hyacinth problem was to import hippos from Africa and introduce them into the waters of Louisiana.  Hippos eat the plants.

Broussard introduced the “American Hippo bill” to authorize the importation and release of hippopotamus into the bayous of Louisiana.  One Agricultural Department official estimated that an armada of free-range hippos, set moping through the bayous of Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, would easily yield a million tons of meat a year.

Former President Theodore Roosevelt backed the plan, as did the U.S. Department of Agriculture, The Washington Post, and The New York Times which praised the taste of hippopotamus as “lake cow bacon”.   (“Toughness is only skin deep,” another reporter noted.)  Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine was even more stirred by their promise:

“This animal, homely as a steam-roller, [is] the embodiment of salvation,” it wrote. “Peace, plenty, and contentment lie before us; and a new life, with new experiences, new opportunities, new vigor, new romance, folded in that golden future when the meadows and the bayous of our Southern lands shall swarm with herds of hippopotami.”

The Washington Post assured the public that the US would see shipments of hippos within a few years.

These shipments never arrived.

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.

Head over to the Atavist to read the entire story.