On 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.
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 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.
Maybe 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!