If you’re tired of reading about the absurdity of American politics in the present, and would like to read about the absurdity of American politics in the past instead, you could do a lot worse than the story of the time we almost brought Hippopotamuses to the bayous of Louisiana. Some highlights:
* In 1910, congressman Ben Broussard’s Hippopotamus importation scheme fell one vote short of passage. The goals of this dubious scheme were two-fold. First, it was hoped that the mammoth herbivore’s voracious appetite would help reverse the growth of another non-native species currently choking the bayous, the water hyacinth, which came to the state in 1884 as gifts from the Japanese delegation in an international cotton exposition, and had since become a serious problem. Second: recent immigration and rapid urban growth were leading to a serious meat shortage, and Broussard hoped that hippopotamus meat might fill the void.
* Two of the men behind this scheme, who served as expert witnesses in congressional hearings, were Frederick Russell Burnham and Fritz Duquesne. Both men were soldiers of fortune and generally shady characters, who had fought on opposite sides in the Boer war, in which they had both been assigned to assassinate the other. Duquesne was probably already a German spy (32 years later, his extensive Nazi spy ring was busted by the FBI), Burnham may have been a British spy, may have been an inspiration for the fictional character Indiana Jones, and whose life motivated the creator of the Boy Scouts.
* Proponents of the bill included Teddy Roosevelt, and a number of newspaper editorial boards were enthusiastic about the idea, including the New York Times, which ran editorials extolling the culinary virtues of “cow lake bacon.”
* There may be a movie in the works about this episode, although the lack of updates since 2014 suggests it may have stalled in development hell. Edward Norton is attached, which seems like good news; tragically, Brett Ratner is also attached to the project. Perhaps a side-benefit of Ratner’s #metoo reckoning will be this project passing to more promising hands. (I would recommend the Coen brothers, but I always say that.)
I have no idea if hippopotamuses could have thrived in Louisiana, but it seems entirely possible. Pablo Escobar’s private zoo included four of the creatures; in the few decades since his downfall that population has spread out and increased by at least tenfold, creating serious problems as an invasive species in Columbia. As Hippopotamuses are the most efficiently deadly animals in the world for human beings, so if it had been successful, who knows how many lives this population would have claimed. On the other hand, invasive water hyacinths remain a problem in Louisiana to this day, and the solution we did come up with to deal with “the meat question”–basically, the modern industrial meat system–has some pretty horrifying costs of its own.