We stumbled upon this in the distant cubby hole of the Lulz, a story of two arch nemesis spies, Hippo meat, and a dream to feed America. This is a tale that will make you cry……tears of joy. You were…THAT CLOSE….to growing up eating Hippo meat.
This is a story about hippopotamuses, as advertised, but it’s also a story about two very complicated and exceptional men. These men were spies. They were also bitter enemies. Each wanted to kill the other and fully expected to feel really good about himself afterward. Eccentric circumstances—circumstances having to do with hippopotamuses—would join these men together as allies and even dear friends. But then, eventually, they’d be driven into opposition again.
Whatever strange bond these two men had, they were loyal to it. They were like repulsive magnets: Some fundamental property of each was perfectly opposed to the core of the other. And yet, somehow throughout their long lives—as several volatile phases of American history tumbled along in the background—they also had a way of continually snapping back together. One of these men was a humble patriot, known for his impeccable integrity. He tried to leave detailed, reliable accounts of what he did and thought and felt. The other, I discovered, was a megalomaniac and a pathological liar……
America was withering under a serious meat shortage at the time. Beef prices had soared as rangeland had been ruined by overgrazing, and a crippled industry struggled to satisfy America’s explosively growing cities, an unceasing wave of immigrants, and a surging demand for meat abroad. There were more mouths to feed than ever, but the number of cows in the country had been dropping by millions of head a year. People whispered about the prospect of eating dogs. The seriousness of the Meat Question, and the failure to whip together some brave and industrious solution to it, was jarring the nation’s self-confidence and self-image. It was a troubling sign that maybe the country couldn’t keep growing as fast and recklessly as it had been. Maybe there were limits after all.
Now, though, someone had an answer. The answer was hippopotamuses. One Agricultural Department official estimated that an armada of free-range hippos, set moping through the bayous of Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, would easily yield a million tons of meat a year. Already, Representative Broussard had dispatched a field agent on a fact-finding mission. The man, a native of southern Africa, found the Louisiana swamps “wildly dismal and forbidding.” (The “silence strike[s] one with an almost unforgettable horror,” he wrote in his report, titled “Why and How to Place Hippopotamus in the Louisiana Lowlands.”) Still, the place was perfect for hippos. His conclusion: “The hippopotamus would find no difficulty living in Louisiana.”
……“Transplanting African Animals,” by Major Frederick Russell Burnham, was published in New York’s Independent magazine in January 1910. Before long, a chain of serendipitous connections were made and Burnham was invited to share his ideas in a hearing before the House Committee on Agriculture. It would be a long afternoon of testimony, but at the very start a federal researcher named W.N. Irwin summed up the matter nicely: “Mr. Chairman and gentlemen of the committee,” he told the congressmen, “in studying the resources of our country for a good many years, I was led to the conclusion that we ought to have more creatures than we are raising here.”
……Broussard had met Burnham for the first time that morning. Launching a national effort to import foreign animals that could benefit American society, especially hippos, had been percolating on Broussard’s legislative agenda for some time, and he had been referred to Burnham by mutual friends in Washington who knew the major would gladly advocate for any bill he introduced to fund that work. It was a stroke of symbiotic political matchmaking. Four years earlier, after returning to Pasadena from England following his son Bruce’s death, Burnham had tried to jump-start his own African animal project in Washington. He had called for 30 varieties of edible antelope—klipspringers, gemsboks, waterbucks—as well as other animals, including giraffes, to be imported from Africa and plopped down in the American Southwest. The pioneering conservationist Gifford Pinchot, then head of the forestry service under President Theodore Roosevelt, had been scrambling to claim and protect more land as federal reserves, and Burnham had imagined those areas as ideal incubators for the transplanted creatures. New populations could be built up under the government’s protection, then dispersed. Formerly vacant, unproductive landscapes could be converted into wonderlands for sportsmen and new storehouses for the nation’s food supply. Burnham and several wealthy friends had even raised $50,000 to pay for the first wave of importations. They’d had a successful meeting with President Roosevelt. Pinchot had written to Burnham, “I have talked with a good many men about the plan and no one has developed any weak points yet.”
The idea of hippo meat came about at the beginning of the twentieth century. At the time, a combination of high rates of immigration, increased populations within cities, overgrazed rangeland, and escalating meat prices led to a demand for meat that couldn’t be met. It became known in newspapers as the Meat Question, and two colorful characters, Frederick Russell Burnham and Fritz Duquesne, proposed hippopotamus as the Meat Answer.
Burnham and Duquesne had a few things in common. Along with a common vision of introducing hippopotamus meat to the United States, both were spies. The two also spent time in Africa. And each man had a penchant for posing with animals they slaughtered.
……Together, Broussard, Duquesne, and Burnham started the New Food Supply Society, to explore and promote their idea. Congressman Broussard introduced H.R. 23261, also known as the Hippo Bill, which sought the appropriation of $250,000 to import useful animals (such as hippos) into the United States. Citizens wrote letters in praise of his proposition, its taste was touted in an editorial in the New York Times as “lake cow bacon” and The Washington Post announced that hippopotamus would be readily available within the United States in a matter of years.
As we all know, America went down a different meat sourcing path. Although Mooallem doesn’t necessarily think the United States would have been better off with hippo meat, he notes “…there is something beautiful about the America that considered importing them—an America so intent on facing down its problems, and solving them, that even an idea like this could get a fair hearing; where the political system and the culture felt so alive with possibility, and so confident in its own virtue and ingenuity, that elected officials could sit around and contemplate the merits of hippo ranching without worrying too much about how it sounded; where people felt free and bold enough to imagine putting hippopotamuses in places where there were no hippopotamuses.”