LA - The true story of when Congress almost released wild hippos into the Louisiana bayou
Congress was one vote away from passing the hippo bill. Experts weigh in on what could have been
The hippopotamus is arguably one of the great physical comedians of the animal world. With its roly-poly body, Shrek-like ears and squat nostrils smushed into a giant snout, it's easy to forget that the absurd-looking creatures are actually quite dangerous to humans. According to the BBC in 2016, hippopotamuses killed an average of 500 people each year in Africa — far more than lions, which tend to inspire far more fear. Theodore Roosevelt himself understood this, and as such was understandably pleased when he managed to kill eight hippos during his famous 1909-1910 safari.
Yet around the same time that Roosevelt was traipsing through Africa and slaughtering these rotund mammals, other Americans were planning on bringing hippopotamuses to their own country.
Not as zoo exhibits, mind you. The plan was to introduce wild hippopotamuses to the Louisiana bayous, with the idea that they would some day be as common a feature in that region as alligators and pelicans.
If this sounds crazy, you're right, but the two main proponents of the scheme had a method behind their seeming madness. Rep. Robert Broussard, D-La., was concerned about how a plant known as pontederia crassipes, or the common water hyacinth, was choking off waterways and killing the fish (by soaking up oxygen in the water) that lived in the bayous he loved so dearly. At the same time, Broussard was, like many other Americans, concerned about a meat shortage afflicting the country. He came up with a simultaneous solution to both problems that seemed ingenious: Import hippopotamuses to the Louisiana bayous, where they would eat the hyacinths and be hunted for their tasty flesh. (Per Mental Floss, hippopotamus meat tastes "mild, less than lamb and more than beef, slightly more marbled than usual venison.")
Broussard didn't act alone. When he introduced the so-called "America Hippo Bill" in 1910, he recruited two notable expert witnesses: Frederick Russell Burnham, a frontiersman who enthusiastically participated in African colonialist adventures and served as an inspiration for Indiana Jones, and Fritz Duquesne, a South African Boer who regularly hunted big game like hippopotamuses. In addition to Burnham and Duquesne, Broussard also recruited an apple expert named William Newton "W. N." Irwin, a well-respected veteran of the Department of Agriculture.