Let America Eat Hippo

Classic Weird News From 1910

Asheville Citizen Times - April 3, 1910

There's no food as all-American as beef. Think of cowboys, hamburgers, and hot dogs at the ballpark. Cow meat serves as a focal point for American identity in many different ways.

But if history had taken a slightly different turn, hippos, and not cows, might have been the great American food source.

The moment in time when this turn toward the hippo might have happened was 1910. That was the year when the US Congress considered an audacious plan to import thousands of hippos from Africa, settle them in the swamps along the Gulf Coast, and thereby transform America into a nation of hippo eaters.

The Meat Question

The genesis of the hippo plan lay in the problems besetting the meat industry at the beginning of the 20th century. America faced a looming meat shortage. Cattle farmers were caught between two forces seemingly out of their control.

On the one hand, the population of America was growing rapidly, swelled by immigration. There were more mouths to feed, and beef was their favorite food.

On the other hand, the amount of land available for grazing cattle was shrinking, and much of the land had been overgrazed.

So more people wanted beef, and there was less of it to sell to them. As a result, meat prices had been rising steadily. 

There didn't seem to be any obvious way out of this problem. The press called it the "Meat Question" and fanned fears by warning that people might soon have to start eating dogs if they wanted meat. One reporter wrote that "If the meat trust raises its prices much higher, we may eventually be obliged to add English bulldog chops, French poodle soup, and dachshund pie to our menus."

Hippos To The Rescue

In this national atmosphere of fear and uncertainty, there suddenly appeared a ray of hope — the African hippo, aka . 

William Newton Irwin, a researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was one of the first to float the notion of importing hippos to solve the meat question.

He laid out his plan in a 1909 article titled "Animals That Should Be Introduced And Bred For Economic And Profitable Meat Production," published in the Journal of Heredity.

Irwin assured readers that hippos would be easy to breed, offering as proof "Miss Murphy," a hippo in the Central Park Zoo who had given birth to eight baby hippos while in captivity.

Furthermore, the swamplands of the Gulf States seemed like an ideal environment for the semiaquatic mammal. Ten thousand square miles of unproductive marsh could be transformed into a vast farm capable of producing one millions tons of meat per annum.

Plus, the hippos would solve another problem. Water hyacinths imported to the Gulf States from Japan in the late 19th Century had, in recent years, grown out of control, choking waterways. Millions of dollars were being spent to control their spread. The hippos, however, could feed on the hyacinths, checking their growth. It was a win-win for everyone!

But would people actually eat hippos? Did they taste good?

Irwin hadn't ever tried hippo himself, but he nevertheless enthused that its flesh was "highly esteemed" in Africa, and he noted that when salted and cured, the meat was known in the Cape of Good Hope as "Zee-koe-speck," or "Lake-Cow bacon."

Selling The Idea To Congress

Irwin's article caught the eye of Louisiana congressman Robert Broussard (known as "Cousin Bob" to his constituents), who soon became a passionate convert to the hippo cause.

In early 1910, Broussard introduced H.R. 23261, a congressional bill that called for the appropriation of $250,000 for the importation of African animals, particularly the hippo, to the Southern states. It was popularly referred to as the Hippo Bill.

Broussard put together a panel of experts to sell the idea to Congress. This included Irwin as well as two men familiar with African wildlife: the American scout/adventurer Frederick Russell Burnham, and a South African soldier, Fritz Duquesne

By a strange coincidence, Burnham and Duquesne had both fought in the Second Boer War — on opposite sides.

They had even been given orders to kill each other. But now, with the war behind them, they joined forces to convince Americans to eat hippo meat.

Broussard and his experts presented the hippo plan to Congress on March 24, 1910. By all accounts, the hearing went well and generated great interest in the idea. All the major papers ran articles praising the importation of hippos.

But unfortunately, Congress was unable to act on the Hippo Bill before the end of its session. No matter, Broussard vowed to reintroduce the bill the following year, at which time he anticipated it would sail through.

The Plan's Demise

As they waited to reintroduce the Hippo Bill, Broussard, Irwin, Burnham, and Duquesne joined forces to form the New Food Supply Society, a lobbying group dedicated to promoting the importation of hippos.

Burnham drummed up support by giving speeches, while Duquesne went on a fact-finding mission to Louisiana to gather data to support the project.

Time passed. And then... nothing happened. 

Interest in the hippo plan gradually fizzled out. There was no one event that killed the plan outright. It just suffered a slow demise. 

Irwin (the scientific brains of the project) died in 1911. Broussard then became distracted by other projects, and kept delaying the reintroduction of the bill. He died in 1918.

The long and short of it was that the Hippo Bill was never reintroduced, and no hippos were ever brought to America to be farmed for their meat.

American farmers eventually solved the meat question in a more mundane way, by figuring out how to raise more cattle on less land. The techniques they developed were the basis for modern factory farming.

In hindsight, the hippo plan wasn't necessarily a bad idea. It might have worked. The greatest obstacle it faced was that Americans were simply too attached to their beef. It's what they were used to. To a nation accustomed to eating cows, the idea of eating hippo just seemed too weird. 

Further Reading

To learn more about the hippo plan of 1910, check out American Hippopotamus by Jon Mooallem.