The United States was facing several crises in the early 1900s. First, they were dealing with a major meat shortage as the population boomed due to natural increase and a massive wave of immigration. Ranchers and farmers couldn’t keep up with the demand for meat, and prices were skyrocketing.
The country was also facing an ecological problem in the Southeastern states. An invasive plant species, called water hyacinth, was clogging up rivers and other waterways, especially in Louisiana. These plants were killing fish and putting a dent in the lucrative shipping trade.
But Representative Robert Broussard had devised a plan that would solve both problems at once. To this end, he introduced the “American Hippo Bill” into Congress in 1910.
If passed, the law would budget $250,000 to bring hippopotamuses to the marshlands and bayous of the Southeast. These hippos would feast on the pesky water hyacinth, thus clearing up the environmental problem. They would also become a much-needed source of meat for the growing country. He even dubbed hippo meat “lake cow bacon,” possibly to make it sound more palatable.
The bill received support from some prominent sources, including former President Theodore Roosevelt. Many newspapers also supported the idea, pointing out that other attempts to import foreign animals as meat sources had been successful. In fact, they said, most of the animals used for meat in the United States were originally imports from Europe.
Pretty soon, though, people began pointing out problems with the proposed legislation. Ranchers did not see how they would be able to get these massive animals to stockyards for butchering and processing. It would not be as simple to load a wild hippo on a cattle car as it was to load a docile cow.
The Department of Agriculture also argued that the marshlands in question would be put to better use if they were converted to pasture for cows and other domestic animals. They also did not think Americans would be too keen on eating hippo meat.
Curiously, though, no one thought to bring up the fact that hippos are dangerous animals. They are one of the deadliest animals in Africa, killing nearly 3,000 people there per year. These animals might also have come to be a worse invasive species than the water hyacinth they were meant to eradicate. With no natural predators, the hippo population could have easily spun out of control. It is possible that they could have destroyed native wildlife populations as well by competing with them for food. If wild food ran out for the hippos, they may have started eating vegetation growing on farms.
Fortunately for America, the bill did not even make it to a vote. Instead, farmers converted acres of previously unusable marshland to pasture, just as the Department of Agriculture suggested. If it weren’t for the practical reasoning of these farmers and agricultural experts, we could be eating hippo burgers and steaks today.