In 1910, Louisiana congressman Robert Broussard introduced a bill to import African Hippopotamuses to the swamplands of the U.S. Gulf Coast to supplement the U.S. food supply. Author Jon Mooallem’s longform nonfiction multimedia story “American Hippopotamus” published by The Atavist details the origins and tracks the fate of this idea, which ultimately never came to fruition. The piece is a fascinating narrative and profile of two of the proponents of this scheme, who were once enemies fighting on opposite sides of the Boer War: American scout Frederick Russell Burnham (The inspiration for Boy Scouts and Indiana Jones), and Fritz Duquesne.
The proposal to import hippos was a response to what was then called the “Meat Question.” Mooallem writes:
“America was withering under a serious meat shortage at the time. Beef prices had soared as rangeland had been ruined by overgrazing, and a crippled industry struggled to satisfy America’s explosively growing cities, an unceasing wave of immigrants, and a surging demand for meat abroad… It was a troubling sign that maybe the country couldn’t keep growing as fast and recklessly as it had been. Maybe there were limits after all.”
Up until that point, U.S. had responded to shortages in food by land expansion, but the limits of this approach started to daylight. The introduction of African hippos to the U.S. was also an attempt to correct a problem caused by the introduction of a another foreign species. Water hyacinths’brought to New Orleans as a gift from a visiting Japanese delegation’rapidly reproduced and caused eutrophication and the formation of aquatic dead zones. The hope was that the African hippos would eat up the Japanese water hyacinths in waters of the U.S.
Burnham, Duquesne and Broussard had formed the “New Food Supply Society” to gain public and political support for this proposal. Mooallem describes the various arguments they put forth to counter initial resistance to the idea.
“Burnham challenged the committee to consider how bizarre it is that we eat only cows, pigs, sheep, and poultry’just four types of animals, basically all of which had themselves been imported by Europeans centuries ago.”
Burnham also provided a history of the adaptation of other imported animals to the American landscape- ostriches in California, Russian reindeer in Alaska, and African Camels in the American Southwest.
The ethics and potential ecological risks of bringing these animals to the U.S. are never fully addressed, as the men proposing this venture felt that those critical of the idea were either too small minded, or let emotion guide their decision making.
Despite the efforts of the New Food Supply Society, the hippo bill never got passed. Mooallem summarized a different path the nation took to answer the Meat Question:
“Rather than diversify and expand our stock of animals, we developed ways to raise more of the same animals in more places. Gradually, that process led to the factory farms and mass-confinement operations we have today’a mammoth industry whose everyday practices and waste products are linked to all kinds of dystopian mayhem, from the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, to a spate of spontaneous abortions in Indiana, to something called blue baby syndrome, in which infants actually turn blue after drinking formula mixed with tap water that’s been polluted by runoff from nearby feedlots.”
Over a century after the introduction of the hippo bill, the Meat Question still remains. How do we tackle the limits of our growth, issues of global food security and the ethical and ecological consequences of animal agriculture?
Mooallem isn’t necessarily suggesting that we would have been better off if we had implemented the hippo scheme, but he romanticizes the hippopotamus meat solution as one of idealism, offering a bold, innovative attempt at problem solving. “But there is something beautiful about the America that considered importing them’an America so intent on facing down its problems, and solving them, that even an idea like this could get a fair hearing,” Mooallem wrote.
There could also be something beautiful about an America intent on solving the Meat Question today. And what might that crazy, bold, radical solution be now? How about eating plants?
Photo courtesy of Doug88888/Flickr