That Time Congress Tried to Introduce Hippos to the United States

In 1910, the United States was facing dual crises. In one corner, invasive water hyacinths were choking American waterways in the Gulf states, blocking shipping and eliminating fish. In the other corner, America was facing a major meat shortage after butting heads with the meat trust.

In a desperate attempt to restore order, US representative Robert F. Broussard of Louisiana was willing to try anything. With the help of Russell Burnham and Captain Fritz Duquesne as well as two guys from Department of Agriculture, Broussard proposed importing wild and domestic animals from around the world into America.

Known as House Resolution 23261 or “the American Hippo Bill”, the bill would’ve authorized the importation of hippos (and a bunch of other African animals) to the United States, specifically the Gulf states plagued by water hyacinth. In theory, this bill would kill two mosquitoes with one swat. The hippos would eat the water hyacinth, and the Americans would eat the hippos.

To butter up American appetites to this new, strange animal, the men compared hippos to bacon, a product that’s irresistible to many Americans. A year prior, at a meeting of the American Breeders’ Association, hippos were described using the South African term zeekoe spek or “lake cow bacon”. And, in Broussard’s own statement, he says that hippos in Africa are made into bacon and used as bacon. Presumably, under this new bill, Americans would’ve been eating hippo bacon alongside their pancakes every morning.

Of course, not everyone was swayed by the idea of hippo bacon, and Charles F. Scott, the Chairman of the Committee of Agriculture, had a lot of questions. He wanted to know whether hippos were easily domesticated, whether they would become a pest if let loose, how much they would breed, how they taste, whether white men liked them (yeah, that was a serious question back then because all these dudes were hwite), how big they get, what they eat, and the logistics behind confining them to rivers and streams.

Some answers seemed to be based on anecdotal evidence, rather than scientific evidence. But, for the most part, the answers were pretty straightforward.

Naturally, the press went insane, and the headlines were even more so. The focus was mostly on whether or not the reader could stomach hippo meat, although some papers did highlight the water hyacinth issue.

In the end, the American hippo bill barely failed to pass, and that was probably for the best. First off, hippos are insanely aggressive, and they can and do kill anyone wandering in their territory. So if you wanted to paddle a canoe in the bayou, you’d be in serious trouble!

Secondly, it’s usually not a good idea to introduce non-native species to a new environment, even if you plan to domesticate said species. Just like how the water hyacinth, which is native to the Amazon basin, took over American waterways, hippos could’ve also become invasive.

For example, in Colombia, four hippos owned by druglord Pablo Escobar were left on his estate after his death in 1993. By 2007, they had multiplied to 16, and by 2020 it had exploded to over 90 hippos. Now, these feral Colombian hippos are harassing fishermen, killing cattle, and frightening villagers. Yikes.

Lastly, since water hyacinths are South American plants, how could these men have expected African hippos to eat them? Nowadays, water hyacinths have invaded many other continents, including Africa, and hippos are not known to eat them there. Perhaps, these dudes just assumed hippos would eat any type of aquatic plant.

So, anyways, that’s the story of how hippos were almost introduced to America. Could you imagine hippos living in the swamps and bayous of Louisiana and Florida? Would you eat hippo bacon? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Sources:
Hearings before the Committee on Agriculture during the second session of the Sixty-first Congress:
https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001503873

Hungry for Hippos – Library of Congress:
https://blogs.loc.gov/headlinesandheroes/2018/08/hungry-for-hippo/

The water hyacinth, and its relation to navigation in Florida:
https://www.worldcat.org/title/water-hyacinth-and-its-relation-to-navigation-in-florida/oclc/12116979

Jon Mooallem, “American Hippopotamus:
https://magazine.atavist.com/american-hippopotamus

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