In 1884, the water hyacinth delighted audiences when it made its North American debut at the Cotton States Exposition in New Orleans. With its delicate purple flowers and glossy leaves, the Amazonian plant was poised to become the new frontier of ornamental gardening, the fair’s organizers proclaimed, handing out hyacinths to anyone who wanted them.
But beneath its pretty exterior, the hyacinth hid its true nature as a malevolent marauder. The plant spread like a virus first in Louisiana and then in Florida. Within 20 years, it had overtaken waterways across the South, threatening long-established trade routes. Workers hoping to halt the hyacinth’s growth broke the plants apart and dredged them from the river banks; they soaked the blooms in gasoline and set them on fire. Each time, the hyacinth not only survived but also thrived.
As Southerners waged a never-ending botanical battle, a second crisis brewed in the United States. Around the turn of the 20th century, inexpensive meat, a product of American prosperity that had long been available to even the poorest immigrants, was suddenly in short supply. “Meatpackers blamed the grain prices and cattle shortages, butchers blamed the meatpackers, [and most everyone else] blamed the Beef Trust”—a nickname for the nation’s largest meatpacking companies—“for conspiring to profit at their expense,” says Catherine McNeur, a historian at Portland State University.
The only one way to solve both problems at once, argued Louisiana Representative Robert F. Broussard, was to embrace hippopotamus ranching. On March 24, 1910, Broussard stood before the House Committee on Agriculture to lay out the details of his “American Hippo Bill” (House Resolution 23261). He believed importing the hungry herbivores from Africa would rid Louisiana and Florida of the hyacinths smothering their waterways. When the animals were good and fat (on average, hippos weigh between 3,000 and 9,920 pounds), farmers could take their inventory to slaughter, revitalizing America’s low-cost meat supply.
But hippo meat, or “lake cow bacon,” as the New York Times called it, would be just the start. “I think it is easily possible to add 1,000,000 tons of meat a year to our supply,” William Newton Irwin, a researcher at the Department of Agriculture, told the congressional panel. “There is not any reason why we cannot find a place in the United States for every one of the more than 100 species of animals that are in existence today and not domesticated.”
Dik-diks and other small antelopes from sub-Saharan Africa could become a mainstay on family farms, while herds of Cape buffalo and bushbucks could roam like cattle across Western ranches. Rhinoceroses could populate the barren deserts of the Southwest, Tibetan yaks could climb the peaks of the Rocky Mountains, and Manchurian pigs could reside in the frigid northern states.
Irwin was one of three experts recruited by Broussard to testify at the hearing. As Jon Mooallem wrote for the Atavist magazine in 2013, he “appears to have spent his career championing ideas that were simultaneously perfectly logical and extravagantly bizarre.” Irwin was the one who convinced Broussard of the hippo solution’s merits, arguing that “any resistance to [the] idea came down to simple small-mindedness,” an inability on the part of Americans to embrace a new food source.
The other members of Broussard’s posse of hippo schemers were charismatic American military scout Frederick Russell Burnham, who’d realized the potential of hippo farming while stationed in Africa during the Second Boer War, and South African army captain (and later German spy) Fritz Joubert Duquesne.
“I was born in Africa … [and] most of my early life was spent eating hippopotamus,” Duquesne told the panel. (Stone tools found in Kenya’s Homa Peninsula suggest early humans were butchering the animals as early as 2.6 million to 3 million years ago.) “As to the quality of this animal as food,” Duquesne added, “I just want to call your attention to the vigorous race of Dutchmen … [that] lived on hippopotamus” during the Boer War. Irwin, for his part, testified that hippo meat tasted like a “combination of pork and beef.”
If the Hippo Bill were passed, no American, whatever their socioeconomic status, would ever have to eat a meatless meal again. For just $250,000 (about $8 million today), America’s “unoccupied and unused” government lands could be filled with wild and domestic animals from around the globe, the bill stated.
As the campaign’s supporters pointed out, the U.S. had imported foreign animals en masse before. Between 1891 and 1902, the country welcomed 1,280 reindeer from Russia, allowing the long-legged ungulates to fill the vacancy left by Alaska’s diminishing native caribou herds. At the time of the hearing, around 20,000 reindeer were confidently striding across the Alaska Territory’s frozen tundra.
Former President Theodore Roosevelt, who spent his post-White House days enthralling the country with photos of his African hunting safaris, immediately signed on to the plan. He pledged to give Broussard his full support on the matter. But it remained to be seen whether the American public would do the same.
“All we have to do to be saved from vegetarianism is to cultivate a taste for hippopotamus, rhinoceros, camel, eland, springbok, [rhebok], dik-dik, [kudu], giraffe and other African animals,” mused the Daily Arizona Silver Belt in the days following the congressional hearing. “Perhaps these animals, some of them at least, are not so bad as they sound.”
A few weeks later, reporter William Henderson made the case for hippo meat in the North Dakota Evening Times: “Great Britain has eaten the Australian kangaroo and likes him, horseflesh is a staple in continental Europe, and the people of Central America eat the lizard. Why cannot Americans absorb the hippopotamus?”
Committee members had their own questions about Broussard’s proposal. Chairman Charles F. Scott asked whether it would be possible to domesticate and contain the portly mammals. Would they eat the invasive water hyacinths, he wondered?
Irwin and Broussard answered both queries with an emphatic yes. Yes, hippos would be easily tamed. Yes, they would be fenced in, living safely on five- or six-acre waterfront farms. Yes, hippos would relish dining on water hyacinths. The plant, which grew to a mass of 30 to 50 tons per acre, according to Irwin, could easily be their primary food source.
The pair had no idea how misguided these theories were. Tank-like hippos would be difficult to keep from busting through fences on family farms. As one of the deadliest animals in the world, killing an estimated 500 people per year, hippos would pose an extreme threat if they escaped. What’s more, aquatic plants are a very small component of the hippo diet; at night, the animals lumber out of the water to graze on grasses. Even if water hyacinths were hippo culinary staples, they would be a poor choice of food.
Hyacinths are “95 percent water by weight,” says Jason A. Ferrell, director of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants. “There is so much water that when [an animal consumes the plant], the body has to start regulating. They have to up their metabolism and really start working their kidneys hard to move all of this water that they’ve consumed in the water hyacinth. There’s so little nutrition. … They’d basically eat it and lose weight.”
Hippos may not spend much time eating while in the water, but they do poop prolifically—an activity that creates an ecological threat as weighty as the one Broussard was trying to solve in the first place. Hippo waste adds to water’s nutritional load, propelling the overgrowth of algae while simultaneously killing native plants and fish.
In Colombia, dozens of hippos descended from four that once lived in drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s private zoo are now stomping around and “muddying up the river bottom, making the water very turbid and tearing up the plant life while adding tremendous nutrients right back into the water,” says Ferrell. “The river in Colombia went from being nice and clear to now just miles of muddy, smelly, algae-filled water. If that’s not an ecological disaster, I don’t know what you’d call it.”
In 1910, though, even an agricultural expert like Irwin believed that hippo farming was a solution to two of the day’s most pressing problems. Whatever consequences might arise from hippos’ introduction to the South would surely be of less import than the water hyacinth’s invasion—not to mention the fact that the scheme would solve nationwide meat shortages in the process. Neither the committee nor the bill’s supporters addressed the irony of using one invasive species to destroy another.
“We brought into the country the horse, the cow, the ass, the sheep and the goat, and they have all gone wild and thrived,” said Burnham at the congressional hearing. “If those animals could be adopted into our Western country, I do not see why the game animals cannot be adopted, too.”
Despite the excitement generated by the American Hippo Bill, with newspapers from Maine to Oregon breathlessly weighing in on the issue (“Seriously, we need every additional species that it is possible to secure,” the Ocala Evening Standard told Floridians on April 12), the committee remained unconvinced, and members shelved the legislation. Broussard discussed reintroducing the bill to the committee the following year, but it wasn’t long before political ambitions and the outbreak of World War I drew his attention elsewhere.
Though Broussard was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1914, he didn’t live to complete his term, dying in 1918 after a long illness. By then, war-hardened Americans had gotten used to living without luxuries like meat, butter and coffee. With time and new technologies that allowed for more meat production with fewer resources, the scheme to populate the U.S. with dozens of non-native animal species was forgotten. The nation had lost its taste for hippopotamus.
More than a century later, water hyacinths still menace Southern waters. Between 1975 and 2013, Louisiana spent $124 million on efforts to keep the invasive plant at bay. “It’s not becoming more tame with time,” says Ferrell. While strategies ranging from biological control agents to herbicides are slowing the plant’s growth, they aren’t enough to stop its spread entirely. That clock will never be reset.
If only things had been a little different—if the House committee had forwarded the bill to Congress, if Broussard hadn’t run for the Senate, if World War I had begun several years later—the American ecosystem, from the rhinoceros plateaus of New Mexico to the Manchurian pig farms of Minnesota, might look profoundly different than it does today. And in the South, herds of hippos would soak like submarines in the bucolic waters of their riverside ranches.