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U.S. Hippo Ranches and Lake Cow Bacon

By   /  April 18, 2016  /  4 Comments

But for a vote that never happened back in 1910, today, farmers in Louisiana might be raising hippos, while giraffes and white rhinoceroses would be roaming the southwest. And Americans would be eating them too!

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ptXcCEr-715351On March 24, 1910, Congressman Robert Broussard of Louisiana sponsored a debate on a bill he had introduced. HR 23261 “For the Transport of African Animals,” was soon known as “The Hippo Bill” because it included a plan to import hippopotamuses to Louisiana. There the “Lake Cows” would graze on invasive water hyacinths that were choking the waterways and killing off fish and the livelihoods of fishermen. People in turn would eat the hippos, solving the meat shortage the world had been struggling with for years. It was a “two-birds with one stone” solution that even President Teddy Roosevelt backed.

From a New York Times article published April 12, 1910.

From a New York Times article published April 12, 1910.

The bill proposed appropriating $250,000 to import a wide variety of African animals suited to different American environments. It was supported by the testimony of a number of notable men. William Irwin “W.N.” Irwin was a researcher with the US Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Plant Industry. He noted that in the past, the United States had dealt with shortages by expanding to the west. But with the frontier closed and nowhere further to expand, the country must now figure out how to turn the unproductive deserts and swamps into areas that would provide food for a rapidly expanding population. He told the listening Congressmen, “We ought to have more creatures than we are raising here.” He told the Washington Post, ” I hope to live long enough to see herds of these broad-backed beasts wallowing in the southern marshes and rivers, fattening on the millions of tons of food which awaits their arrival; to see great droves of white rhinoceri…roaming over the semiarid desert wastes, fattening on the sparse herbage which these lands offer; to see herds of the delicate giraffe, the flesh of which is the purest and sweetest of any known animal, browsing  on the buds and shoots of young trees in preparation for the butchers block.” Irwin believed that this was a test of American ingenuity and resolve. According to him. “To defend our freedom and way of life, some generations of Americans are called to go to war; this generation was being called to import hippopotamuses and eat them.”

Major Frederick Russel Burnham was inspiration for the Boy Scouts. The organization hoped to teach boys the outdoor skills and strength of character that had made Burnham famous.

Major Frederick Russel Burnham was inspiration for the Boy Scouts. The organization hoped to teach boys the outdoor skills and strength of character that had made Burnham famous.

Major Frederick Burnham Russell, also testified that day. Russell was a famous scout and world-adventurer and had been promoting this concept for some time. He saw nothing unusual in the idea of adding hippo, giraffe, dik-diks (weighing six to ten pounds and perfect for a Christmas feast), and more to the American dinner table. Wasn’t it bizarre, he asked the committee, that we eat only cows, chickens, pigs and sheep? He suggested we should continue to add to the country’s food stocks from the global pantry, and that given time, hippo roast would become just as normal as a beef roast. It was a project he knew required working against “overwhelming difficulties and the loud guffaws of the ignorant,” yet he firmly believed it was an idea that could restore the feeling of promise in America.

There was not enough time that year for congress to vote on the bill, and by the time Congressman Broussard introduced it again in 1911, the idea’s time had come and gone. Irwin had died, and the USDA had backed away from their support saying that America ought to work instead on turning useless marshes into pastures for beef because people eat beef and it’s normal to eat beef. Though Burnham, Broussard and others continued to push the African animal import idea, somehow, they just never got to yes.

howmanyhipposinusaMaybe it was a bad idea. Certainly there would have been many unintended consequences from these new animals competing with our North American wildlife. But still, there is something in me that likes to imagine hippos in Louisiana, and what a “Hippoboy” might look like on horseback, what the breeding program would have been to turn the most dangerous creature in Africa into a kinder gentler kind of  livestock and what the salty taste of lake cow bacon would be like with my morning toast. The country would certainly have been a different place!

Hippo ranch illustration by Mark Summers.

Hippo ranch illustration by Mark Summers. Want know the story about the men behind the hippo ranch proposal? Click to read “American Hippopotamus” by Jon Mooallem on the Atavist website.

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  • Published: 8 months ago on April 18, 2016
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  • Last Modified: April 11, 2016 @ 5:24 pm
  • Filed Under: Consider This

About the author

editor and contributor

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.

4 Comments

  1. Greg says:

    This is a terrible idea, hippos and such megafauna are extremely dangerous, they kill hundreds in Africa annually. Hippos also do not eat when they are in the water, they move onto land every night and graze in grasses and crops… another reason why its a bad idea, hippos are notoriously aggressive and there WILL be clashes between farmers and such animals. These hippos will also overturn boats, reduce the water quality and are known to create soil erosion and such problems with their frequently used paths.

    What is my experience? I was born and still live in Africa, I have a degree in zoology and I have worked with these animals in the wild. Hippos in particular will be a negative species to introduce. Rhinos will be poached for their horns which will be sold on the middle eastern market and giraffes can also be dangerous. They have a kick strong enough to kill a lion. If you do not believe me research any of these facts yourself.

    These simple two birds with one stone solutions are often unfounded and poorly thought out.

    • Kathy Voth says:

      See what people didn’t know back in 1910 when they were thinking about this?! And even today, I didn’t know that hippos don’t eat while they’re in the water. Meanwhile, here is a picture of a hippo that was part of the campaign to show folks back in the early 1900s that hippos were docile and easy to manage. What stories we tell ourselves! 🙂
      Hippo being weighed and measured

    • Brian Tremback says:

      If you’re looking to domesticate a landscape and exterminate everything that won’t be subjugated, you have a point. On the other hand, we have managed to make room for bison, bears, moose, elk, and alligators and feel privileged to still have them with us, both for the ways they benefit and maintain the environment and for the grandeur they lend to the natural world.

  2. Brian Tremback says:

    This is similar to what scientists like the late Paul S. Martin advocated for rewilding North America with megafauna to replace the many species of mammoth, mastodon, giant ground sloths, camels, giant beavers, etc., etc. that went extinct 10 to 12 thousand years ago. I don’t know about the domesticability of hippos, but repopulating the landscape with large mammals to take the place of those lost seems like a noble and exciting project.

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