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 The Remarkable Early 20th Century Plan to Farm Hippopotamuses in the US
Wired: The Crazy, Ingenious Plan to Bring Hippopotamus Ranching to America

  • Hillyard

    Use one invasive species to fight another. That always works. Good, interesting article. I wonder what (un)reality shows like Duck Hunter would have cropped up it this plan had been enacted.

    • Joseph

      What’s Duck Hunter?

      • P5ychoRaz

        An old game for the NES

        • Joseph

          No, that would be Duck Hunt.

          • P5ychoRaz

            Nothing gets past you, does it Joseph?

          • Joseph

            I guess not.

          • P5ychoRaz

            Past = beyond
            Passed = completing the act of passing

            You do NOT ‘Pass Go.
            You do NOT collect $200.

          • Joseph
          • P5ychoRaz

            Sigh… yes, that’s a dictionary. You obviously know what it is, now you just need to learn how to read and interpret it. What you just posted proves my usage correct. I was using it in the form of a adverb. If you’d actually scroll down past the first entry and click one of those links they provide for you, you’d find a few things:

            – The word past has several meanings (usually related to time before the present or to indicate movement from one side of a reference point to the other side – even a figurative one! – in this case, your head)

            – Past can be used as an adjective, an adverb, a noun or a preposition (lot’s of words do this, English is fun!)

            – Reworded, it could be: Nothing gets away from you. OR Nothing gets beyond you.

            I suppose you could write it as: Nothing gets passed by you. (as though my puns are literally flying whimsically past your noggin lol) but I was using in more of a figurative sense rather than a literal one.

            Words are hard.

          • P5ychoRaz

            But that was a good attempt at feigning intelligence. Almost had me second-guessing myself. Almost.

  • NHN

    I think some hippos are on the roam in South America that escaped drug lord Escobar’s private zoo.

    • P5ychoRaz

      From what I remember, they weren’t only roaming, they were THRIVING..

  • oouchan

    Considering the size of certain individuals living in the US today, I’d say we already have hippos roaming the south….I know that was bad. I couldn’t help myself. 🙂
    Found this kinda neat. Glad, though, they didn’t bring the hippos over. Cattle are docile for the most part. I would think having hippos on the loose would be a horrible idea. They would cause more harm than good, even if they eliminated that flower. History shows that bringing in another species has not really worked out.

    Interesting read.

    • P5ychoRaz

      Instead of gator wranglers A&E would be a buncha shows featuring hicks wresting hippos… I’d tune in for an episode. More likely one of them would get bit in half.

  • AngelenaEgnor

    Its totally against the right of Animal .Basically worker of Animal save are run the campaign against saving the Hippos hunting.

    • Adjudant

      Just trying to imagine this in English!