The US Almost Had Herds Of Hippos Roaming The South

“Manhattan is short on two things: parking and hippos.” —Gloria the Hippo, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008)

In A Nutshell

Ever wondered what hippopotamus might taste like? Well, if Frederick Russell Burnham had gotten his way in 1910, hippo meat might have become an American specialty. Hoping to fix a food crisis and stop an invasive plant, Burnham and a Louisiana Congressman thought it would be a great idea to import hippos to the American South.

The Whole Bushel

Frederick Russell Burnham was quite the character. Once called the “most complete human being who ever lived,” Burnham was a world-traveling adventurer, the inspiration for the American Boy Scouts, and a fighter in the Matabele and Second Boer Wars in South Africa. He also dreamed up one of the weirdest environmental schemes in US history. In 1910, Burnham proposed importing African animals to North America, particularly the hippopotamus. What’s ever weirder is that the US Congress thought it was a pretty good idea.

In the early 20th century, Americans were facing a meat shortage. Thanks to overhunting, quite a few of the nation’s creatures were disappearing, and shoppers were subsequently facing a steak shortage. Believing hippos might solve America’s hunger pangs, Burnham started talking to high-level politicians and writing articles about the promising future of hippo ranches. And as it so happens, Congressman Robert Foligny Broussard of New Iberia, Louisiana thought Burnham’s plan was genius. Not only would hippos taste great with ketchup, but they might just solve a problem that was literally growing out of control.

In 1884, the water hyacinth was introduced to the US by a group of visiting Japanese citizens. While the flower was quite pretty, it was bent on taking over the world . . . or at least Louisiana. The aquatic plant quickly conquered the Pelican State, filling its rivers, killing its fish, and making sailing quite difficult for cargo ships. Congressman Broussard believed hippos might be just the solution for Louisiana’s problem: What better way to fight an invasive species than by introducing another invasive species? Inspired by Burnham’s scheme, Broussard proposed that Congress should spend a quarter of a million dollars on bringing hippos to the American South. Ex-president Theodore Roosevelt thought it was a bully idea, and respected newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times endorsed the plan wholeheartedly.

Phase Two of Burnham and Broussard’s plan involved sending Fritz Duquesne to Louisiana to check around and see if the idea would work out. Duquesne’s involvement is just one more bizarre turn to a very strange story as Duquesne and Burnham were sworn enemies. Duquesne was a notorious conman and spy who fought against the British during the Second Boer War. In fact, both Duquesne and Burnham had actually been assigned to kill each other, and now here they were, working together to bring African mammals to the Gulf Coast. Unfortunately for Burnham and company, the plan never made it to Phase Three. Congress eventually decided it’d be a better idea to drain swamplands to make way for cattle. While anyone living in Louisiana knows the hyacinths are still a major problem, the new idea did solve America’s meat woes. And now we’ll never know what a hippo Big Mac might’ve tasted like . . . 

Show Me The Proof

Photo credit: Alinti
io9.com: The Remarkable Early 20th Century Plan to Farm Hippopotamuses in the US
Wired: The Crazy, Ingenious Plan to Bring Hippopotamus Ranching to America