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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Zoo History: Hippos on the Bayou

"I hope to live long enough to see herds of these broad-backed beasts wallowing in the Southern marshes and rivers, fattening on the millions of tons of food which awaits their arrival; to see great droves of white rhinoceri … roaming over the semiarid desert wastes, fattening on the sparse herbage which these lands offer; to see herds of the delicate giraffe, the flesh of which is the purest and sweetest of any known animal, browsing on the buds and shoots of young trees in preparation for the butchers block”

- W. N. Irwin, United States Department of Agriculture

At first glance, the satire piece highlighted in the most recent post looks too obvious to be believable.  The thing is, though, that like most satire it has some origin in reality.  Manatees have been considered (and to some degree, utilized) as a biological control for water hyacinth.  Capybara have been commercially farmed in their native South America.  And the third member of this little triumvirate?  Funny you should ask...

At the dawn of the 1900s, America's potential seemed to finally be checked up an unforeseen problem.  The country was running out of meat.  The seemingly endless rangelands of the west were used up and overgrazed, and a rapidly increasingly population (driven in part by increased immigration) needed to be fed.  But what to feed them?  America had always solved the problem of natural resources by moving west.  Now, there was no more west to travel to.  If there was no more land to conquer, some outside-the-box thinkers reasoned, maybe it was time to look at the water.

And so began a much-discussed, never-implemented plan for America to begin ranching hippopotamuses.

Image: Mark Summers

There were other animals involved, to be sure, but the focus was always on the hippos.  The plan called for importing animals which could utilize parts of the American landscape that beef cattle could not.  African antelope, for instance, were considered ideal candidates to ranch in the deserts of the southwest, being accustomed to drier conditions than cattle.  Hippos, it was reasoned, could be farmed in the bayous and swamplands of the southeast.  As an extra bonus, they would mop up that pesky water hyacinth, introduced by a Japanese trade delegation in the 1880s, which was blocking up waterways in the south.

This wasn't just some fly-by-night scheme bounced around by crazy entrepreneurs.  This was an issue seriously discussed in the halls of Congress, championed by politicians, endorsed by celebrities, and lauded in the popular press.  Old "African hands" (none of which, it is fair to note, were actually Africans) were consulted about the virtues - and edibility - of hippos.  Circus and zoo staff were asked to provide their expertise for how to ship and care for the animals (even William T. Hornaday got roped into the action).  Funds were being raised to send an expedition over to Africa to collect the beasts.  It was all a go.

So what happened?  The usual reason for progress to be halted.  People lost interest, usually because they get distracted by other things (in this case, first a revolution in Mexico, then an inconvenient World War).  By the time the dust has settled, the relevant players, the ones who were actually leading the charge, have all since retired or died or moved on to other pursuits.

In the end, America decided to solve her meat shortage problem in another way - and it wasn't to go vegetarian.  If more land couldn't be produced for farming, than the remaining land would have to produce more with new techniques.  Welcome to the age of the factory farm.  I'm not certain what ecological problems would have been associated with introducing hippos to the swamps of Florida and Alabama - we've since seen oryx, addax, and other African antelope introduced to the southwest, albeit for sport hunting rather than food - but I can't help but wonder if it really could be worse than the results of factory farms, both in terms of animal welfare and environmental impact.

Farming hippos in the south seems like a crazy idea now, but looking at it through the eyes of the 1900's, I really can't see why it wouldn't have worked.  After all, someone had to start with the mouflon to get the sheep, the wild boar to get the pig, the now-extinct aurochs to get the cow.  After a century of hippo farming, who knows what the result would have been?  Besides a surprising new addition to the barnyard area of your local zoo.

In telling the story of hippo ranching, I unforgivably skimmed over the stories and personalities of the men involved with it, some of whom have led what could only be described as very full lives.  I feel I can do so because their stories have all been told, in much better detail than I could ever hope to achieve, in the article which I have linked below.

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