Although everyone fears shark attacks, hippos are statistically more dangerous. Yet in the early 20th century, there was a movement to populate the swamps of Louisiana with hippos that could be used to feed American Citizens. A movement spurred on by Indiana Jones and The Black Panther.
In 1910, the US faced a food shortage. City populations had exploded, and the meatpacking industry – which had only four years earlier had to clean up it’s act after publication of The Jungle and the passage of the Federal Meat Inspection Act- had trouble keeping up with demand.
The problem couldn’t be solved by hunting. Most native meat animals such as the Buffalo had been hunted to near-extinction. The problem couldn’t be solved by enticing people to move west, as they had in the past. There was no more west to move to. They couldn’t expand cattle ranches. Existing ranch land was over-grazed, and any new land would have to be purchased from farmers at a premium that would drive meat prices up further. What was to be done?
A man named Frederick Burnham thought he had an answer. Why not import animals from Africa to live in the interior of the United States, then use them to replenish the country’s meat supply?
If you think this idea sounds like something cooked up by George Lucas, right before he puts all that gazelle and zebra meat in a 1950’s style fridge, then proceeds to nuke the fridge, you aren’t wrong. Burnham was one of the templates for Indiana Jones.
The Most Interesting Man In America
Burnham had been born to missionaries on a Sioux reservation. As an infant, he survived a Sioux raid when his mother hid him in a pile of green corn shocks. By the age of 12 he was supporting himself in California as a rider for Western Union. His education continued when at 14 he became an army scout during the Apache Wars. The frontiersmen and cowboys he served with (some of which had served under Kit Carson) taught him how to track and live in the wild. He was part of the band of trackers who searched for Geronimo.
Throughout the next two decades, Burnham lived as a freelance adventurer. But with the closing of the American frontier, he found himself without an adventure to lance for free. He and his wife packed up and headed to Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) where he served as a scout in the first and second Matabele wars.
Along the way, Burnham met Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts. Burnham impressed Baden-Powell so much, Baden-Powell formed an organization for boys so that they could aspire to be scouts and manly men just like Burnham. (He obviously sat up all night thinking up the name.)
Soon after, Burnham went to the Klondike to pan for gold. While there, the commander in chief of British forces asked him to become chief of scouts serving in the recently-ignited Boer war. Burnham’s actions during the Boer war earned him the cross of the Distinguished Service Order (one of very few Americans to earn such an honor), The Queen’s South Africa Medal, and the rank of major.
The Big Idea Man
A Congressman from Louisiana named Robert Broussard also thought he had the answer to the meat scarcity. Broussard, came up with this plan while searching for the answer to an unrelated problem: Invasive water hyacinth that were clogging the Louisiana swamps. The invasive species, which had been introduced by Japanese delegates to a cotton expo in 1884, were killing fish and clogging up the shipping lanes used by cargo vessels (spoiler: a problem that persists today).
While searching for an answer, Broussard read a paper that Burnham published in which he advocated importing African animals into the United States to “beef up” the meat supply. The congressman had a lightbulb moment: why not import some water-going African animal to live in the Louisiana swamps? They could eat the invasive hyacinth, and then be eaten.
One of Broussard’s contacts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an apple researcher named William Newton Irwin, thought that the hippopotamus was the perfect animal for what Broussard was proposing.
Irwin was a bit of an odd duck. His specialty was apples, but he had a passion for the idea of importing hippos for meat. When reporters visited his office, he would offer them a stick of hippo jerky before showing photos of his limited edition poly bgged X-men trading cards the very animal they were eating.
Knowing what we know of hippos now – how territorial and dangerous they are – we can see that this is a terrible idea. But Broussard latched onto the idea.
Broussard, known to his constituents as “Cousin Bob” was one of those grandstanding, glad-handing, big ideas politicians.
According to The Saturday Evening Post: “Certain Louisianans may protest they are not his cousins. That is a matter of minor importance. The point is that Cousin Bob is their cousin; and he is satisfied, even if they are not. It is quite impossible to stop Cousin Bob from being everybody’s cousin.”
In other words, Cousin Bob was not the type of guy to get bogged down in details.
And the idea of introducing hippos had a nice, attention-getting quirkiness to it. A bit of “so crazy it just might work.”
Broussard contacted Burnham for more information. For his part, Burnham was thrilled that Broussard would champion his idea. The adventurer had tried getting the U.S. Government to import zebra, gazelles and camels with the backing of President Theodore Roosevelt, but the plan was killed due to political wrangling. In Broussard, Burnham saw a man who could get things done.
The three men brought in a fourth collaborator to their plan on Burnham’s recommendation. Ironically, it was a man who Burnham was once sworn to kill: Frederick “Fritz” Duquesne.
The Black Panther
Duquesne and Burnham share more than just a first name. Duquesne could almost be considered Burnham’s dark twin with an equally colorful past. A sort of Red Skull to Burnham’s captain America, if you will: Where Burnham is held up as a shining example for young boys to aspire to, Duquesne is remembered as a notorious con-man and scoundrel who reinvented himself as needed.
Duquesne was born in South Africa to Boer (Dutch South African) parents. His father was a hunter and farmer, and Duquesne took up hunting as a child the way that Burnham took up scouting.
While hunting, he observed the way a panther would lie in wait for a water buffalo. Duquesne admired the animal’s hunting style, and took the animal as his totem. In later life, he would call himself “The Black Panther of the Veldt.”
Duquesne served with the Boer commandos in the First and Second Boer wars. Over the course of the wars, he served as a soldier, spy, saboteur, thief and whatever else the situation called for. On more than one occasion he was captured and put into an internment camp, only to escape using his wits and charm.
During the Second Boer War, Duquesne was ordered to kill Burnham, chief of the British Scouts. At the same time, Burnham was ordered to kill Duquesne.
After the two wars, Duquesne wrote adventure stories for the New York Herald. Burnham, who continued working with the British, kept tabs on Duquesne.
So when searching for experts on African animals, who better, thought big ideas man Broussard, than the Black Panther of the Veldt?
Burnham, Broussard and Duquesne formed the New Food Supply Society, with the stated aim of importing useful African animals as a meat supply. This was the first time that Duquesne and Burnham met face-to-face.
Broussard introduced a bill into congress that quickly became known as “The Hippo Bill.” The bill sought $250,000 to import animals into the United States for meat production. In support of the bill, Burnham, Duquesne and Irwin testified before congress about the feasibility of the plan.
Irving brought facts, figures and the kind of nerdy enthusiasm to the project rarely seen these days outside comic book fans debating Silver Age Batman vs. The Dark Knight. Burnham lent gravitas that allowed the congressmen to take the project seriously, and Duquesne brought his experience.
Modern meat animals, such as pigs, cows and chickens were not native to the United States. They, too, were once imported, the men argued. Familiarity with the modern food source was what made it seem commonplace. After a few decades of using hippos and other animals as a food source, they would not seem novel either.
The plan caught the public’s imagination. Former president Theodore Roosevelt endorsed it, as did the Washington Post and the New York Times. The latter dubbing the hippo “Lake Cow Bacon.”
Early plans called for animals to be locally-sourced. Because of the size of the hippos, the animals would be slaughtered near their rangelands, and shipped to local shops. The plans resemble the modern locavore movement.
During this time, Duquesne became Roosevelt’s personal shooting instructor, and accompanied him on a hunting trip, where the two men shot many animals that are probably on the endangered species list today. No word on whether they shot any lake cow bacon.
So Why Aren’t We Eating Hippo Today?
This was to be the high point of the “let’s introduce foreign animals and eat them” movement. The Hippo act barely failed to pass in Congress. With the failure of the bill, the meatpacking industry expanded to meet demand. Grazing lands grew into feed lots. And many of the wetlands that would have supported hippos were drained to form grasslands for cattle.
Burnham continued his streak of being awesome. He went on to prospect for gold in Africa, discover Mayan artifacts in Mexico and thwart an assassination attempt against president Howard Taft.
When World War I rolled around, Theodore Rosevelt selected Burnham to head up a new version of the Rough Riders that would operate in France, however Woodrow Wilson refused to use this volunteer infantry division.
After the war, Burnham discovered oil in California, becoming Scrooge McDuck-wealthy in the process. He spent his retirement years swimming in his giant swimming pool full of money working with various conservation groups, and the Boy Scouts.
Broussard was elected to eight terms in congress, then was elected to the senate. He served as a senator for three years until his death.
As of this writing, I have not been able to find records pertaining to what happened to Irving. Perhaps, like Smeagol, he crawled into his cave beneath a lake of hippos to pet his stick of hippo jerky, coo over it and call it “my precious.”
Of the men involved in The Hippo Bill, Duquesne’s life takes a darker path. After becoming a naturalized U.S. Citizen, he entered into service of Germany as a spy. He served in that capacity through war and peacetime through 1941. Along the way taking on new identities, building a spy ring, helping to sink numerous British ships and both escaping and evading capture.
He and his spy ring were captured by the FBI in 1941. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison, but was released after 14 due to failing health. Duquesne died in 1956 in City Hospital on Welfare Island (Now Roosevelt Island) in New York.
There is currently a backlash against the over-use of antibiotics in feed lots and commercial chicken houses. Partially, this has led to the growth of locally-sourced meat that resembles the model proposed by the would-be Hippo farmers.
While some non-native animals, such as the ostrich have been imported on a small scale for commercial use in the United States, the hippo is not one of them.
Hippos did come to the Western Hemisphere in the late twentieth century. The late Columbian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar brought four of the animals into his personal zoo. The hippos remained on the property long after Escobar’s death.
That heard of four has multiplied like only a hippo with no natural predators or seasonal drought to keep it’s numbers in check could. As of 2014, an estimated 50-60 hippos live in the region of Escobar’s former property. As of right now, the animals are more of a nuisance than a real danger. But that may change if their numbers continue to grow.
Perhaps it is for the best that they were never established in Louisiana.