Episode 51 - Louisiana Hippo Farms

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Presidential Trivia:

Instead of the bible, which book did President John Quincy Adams take his oath of office on?

Frederick Russell Burnham was born on May 11, 1861 in Minnesota. Burnham never finished school, but by the time that he was 14 years old, he was living on his own in California trying to learn as much as he could from the cowboys and frontiersman he met there. He then worked for the United States Army as a civilian tracker during the Apache Wars. Burnham was always seeking adventure and found himself in Southern Africa, working as a scout for the British Army. Despite being an American, Burnham was given the British military title of Chief of Scouts and the rank of major.

Burnham never drank alcohol or smoked, because he believed that it would dull his senses. It seemed like everyone who met Burnham was very impressed by him. One writer described how Burnham could go two and a half days without sleep, fix a broken pistol mainspring with a piece of a buffalo bone, smell water from long distances away, and very seldom drank alcohol or smoked because it would dull his senses. His commanding officers described him as “a man totally without fear.”

People also loved his eyes that were described by one writer as “steady, grey blue eyes that have in them a far-away look such as those acquire whose occupation has caused them to watch continually at sea or on great plains.” One of his friends described Burnham as “the most complete human being who ever lived.”

During the Second Boer War in South Africa, Burnham’s greatest enemy was a man named Fritz Duquesne. Burnham and Duquesne were both given assignments to kill the other and spent the war trying to track each other down, but neither was successful. After the death of his daughter and one of his sons, Burnham and his wife moved back to the United States to settle down. However, Burnham missed Africa and would think of it often.

At the turn of the 20th century, America was facing a serious dilemma. Thanks to the industrial revolution, American cities were growing rapidly, and large waves of immigrants came to America to live out the American dream. More people means the need for more food, however, due to the overgrazing of rangeland, the number of cows in the United States were dropping by millions of head a year and the price of beef soared. Besides the domesticated cow, herds of buffalo had been wiped out, species of birds had been hunted near extinction, and fish numbers were low due to dynamite being used as a main harvesting technique. America was looking at a serious meat shortage.

In 1906, Burnham got word of President Theodore Roosevelt’s plan to protect large amounts of land as federal reserves. Burnham figured that the newly protected land in the Southwest would be the perfect place to transplant about 30 different varieties of antelope, giraffes, and other animals from Africa. The African animals could get their start and start population in federally protected land and then they could be dispersed across America. Land that was seen as unproductive or vacant could be turned into grazing for America’s new food supply.

Burnham got his wealthy friends together to raise $50,000 tat would pay for the first wave of African animals to be imported in. They then had a very successful meeting with President Roosevelt and the Chief of the United States Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot. After the meeting Pinchot told Burnham “I have talked with good many men about the plan and no one has developed any weak points yet.” Despite support of the project, it was ultimately abandoned when Roosevelt’s critics in Congress decided to attack the idea simply because Roosevelt liked it.

Burnham was extremely upset, but he was able to get connected with Louisiana congressman Robert Broussard. Broussard was popular in Louisiana and his constituents often called him Cousin Bob. Broussard claimed that he was related to at least a quarter of the voters in Iberia Parish, possibly even up to half of them. The Saturday Evening Post once wrote “Certain Louisianians may protest they are not his cousins. That is a matter of minor importance. The point is that Cousin Bob is their cousin; and he is satisfied, even if they are not. It is quite impossible to stop Cousin Bob from being everybody’s cousin.”

Broussard was trying to find a solution to a problem that Louisianians were dealing with back home: the water hyacinth. In 1884, delegates from Japan had brought water hyacinths to an international cotton expo in New Orleans. Locals loved the look of the pale lavender flowers and began to plant them in their ponds at home. The flowers took off and began to spread through the local waterways, taking over the city, then eventually making it into the Mississippi and clogging up rivers, streams, and wetlands across the state. The flowers grew into these thick mats that covered the water it grew on. The hyacinths closed down shipping routes which stopped millions of tons of freight being able to get through. The flowers also block sunlight and create low oxygen levels in the water, which resulted in the killing large populations of fish.

The War Department had actually took on cleaning up the flower. According to Broussard they would “clean a stream today, and in a month it is covered all over again with the same plant.” They would sometimes try to throw oil on the flowers, which would cause them to sink and then rise back up to the surface again once the oil cleared. The water hyacinth had rendered the wetlands across the Gulf Coast worthless.

Broussard thought that bringing an animal to clean up the hyacinth could be a solution. When Broussard met with a veteran researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture named William Newton Irwin, the two of them came to the solution that the hippopotamus might be able to solve a multitude of America’s problems.

Hippopotamuses love to eat aquatic vegetation like the water hyacinth. If they could put some hippos in Louisiana, they would eat the hyacinth, which would allow for the wetlands to be used again, and when the hippos were nice and plump, they could be fed to Americans to solve the meat shortage. Irwin said hippos would “turn the plague that they now have in the South into good, wholesome flesh for our people.” When their plan was met with resistance because Americans wouldn’t eat hippos, Irwin said the only reason that they don’t already is “because their neighbors don’t, or because nobody ever told them it was the proper thing to do.” Irwin invited a reporter from the Washington Post to talk about the plan and offered the reporter a stick of hippo jerky while saying “I am at a loss to understand why anybody should protest against the hippopotamus as a food animal. There is no good reason beyond that inexplicable American habit of following beaten paths. Everyone seems to hate to go out and blaze a trail.”

In fact, hippos apparently taste pretty good, especially the fatty brisket which the New York Times called “lake cow bacon” and if the project went to plan, could be harvested for millions of pounds of meat for Americans a year.

With Burnham, Broussard, and Irwin working together, Broussard created the bill H.R. 23261 which would appropriate $250,000 towards the importation of useful new animals into the United States and was nicknamed the hippo bill. Burnham wrote an article titled “Transplanting African Animals” that was published in New York’s Independent magazine. The bill began to become very popular and people would write Broussard letters on how impressed they were with his bill. The hippo bill eventually made it’s way to committee. Burnham appeared before the committee to speak on behalf of the bill where he talked of his experiences in Africa. Burnham also brought up the fact the four main animals that Americans ate; cows, pigs, sheep, and poultry; had all been imported from Europe, so why shouldn’t we import other types of animals to eat. The only reason that a pork chop or chicken soup felt American was because Americans had eaten them for so long, not because of where the animals had actually come from and in time, hippo roasts could be served for Christmas dinner nationwide with nobody blinking an eye.

Burnham also brought up the fact that the federal government had recently brought in reindeer from Russia to be used for food in Alaska and that in the 1850’s, eventual president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis had brought camels to the U.S. to be used instead of horses as pack animals in the Southwest, which they did.

Unfortunately, Americans need for things to never be different, and soldiers riding horses made fun of soldiers riding camels and eventually soldiers refused to ride camels due to the ridicule. The camels were then set free by the military to live in the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and California. Burnham had actually caught a wild camel while in Arizona and was able to break it for riding. That proved to Burnham how well imported animals could thrive in America and how it could serve Americans for good.

After Burnham and Irwin finished talking to the committee, Broussard brought in a third speaker which he introduced as a hunter of great note from Africa that just happened to be touring America and lecturing on Africa’s wild animals. Broussard then said “I now desire to present to the committee Captain Fritz Duquesne.” Duquesne grew up in South Africa and remembered adults coming into town with a hippo they had just hunted and then diving the hippo meat among the different families living in the town. Duquesne along with the other children would then collect the hippo fat and sell it to French soap manufacturers in the area. When Duquesne was a teenager, he was sent to Belgium to study at a military academy. He returned when the Second Boer War broke out to fight against the British where he also tried to kill Burnham several times. When the British won the war, Duquesne decided to not stick around and made his way to America.

Duquesne was able to get a job as a reporter for the New York Sun and eventually found himself giving President Theodore Roosevelt pointers on hunting in Africa before his big expedition as soon as he was out of office.

While testifying in front of the committee, Duquesne talked of how easy it was to domesticate a hippo like feeding it from a bottle and leading it on a leash. Duquesne also recommended that America bring in other African animals too such as elands, giraffes, and elephants.

After the committee hearing, there was a large amount of newspaper articles writing about the possibility of hippos being the main source of meat for Americans. Before voting on the hippo bill though, congress adjourned. Congressman Broussard was to reintroduce the bill the next spring and plans were made that Burnham would lead an exploratory trip into Africa to seek out other animals that could do well in America.

Burnham was never able to go back to Africa though, having to cancel the expedition at the last minute when the revolution in Mexico began to escalate. Burnham was asked to stay and protect land and assets along the Yaqui River from the fighting, so he stayed. Burnham tried his best to stay involved with the hippo importation though and got into contact with a circus master in Germany on the best practices for shipping wild animals long distances.

Broussard however never reintroduced the bill though, then left the house for the Senate, and then died in 1918 before the bill ever got a vote in Congress. Irwin had died back in 1911, only a year after the committee hearing, so he wasn’t much help getting a new bill written, even though several of his scientific papers began to be published after his, including one about introducing pygmy hippos instead of the larger sized hippos into America because they would be easier to control. Officials in the Department of Agriculture disagreed with Irwin’s hippo reasonings saying that America should turn the marshes into grassland so that cattle could be grazed in the South. So instead of importing hippos, America industrialized farming and created smaller, more confined factory farms that could produce more meat using less land. The state of Louisiana is still battling the water hyacinth today, spending about $2 million a year on spraying the flowers with herbicides.

Duquesne ended up becoming a spy for Germany during both World Wars and spent many years evading the FBI until he was arrested and convicted in 1941 for relaying secret information on U.S. weaponry and shipping movements to Germany.

When Lord Robert Baden-Powell founded the Boy Scouts, he wanted to raise up several generations of boys into men modelled after his friend and previous soldier Frederick Russell Burnham. The boy scouts were to wear neckerchiefs because Burnham always wore one while he was in the desert. Burnham became a member of the Boy Scouts of America’s national council, though he was often disappointed when the council didn’t agree with him on the same requirements the boys needed to meet to receive the Medal for Frontiering and Scouting Skills, like mastery of stalking, evasion, and axemanship along with hiking alone for two days and nights with no food, having to forage and hunt if they wanted to eat. It was recorded that Burnham was “vitally concerned with virility of the country’s future man power.”


“American Hippopotamus” by Jon Mooallem

“Scouting on Two Continents and Taking Chances” by Frederick Russell Burnham

“In Meat We Trust” by Maureen Ogle

Presidential Trivia:

Instead of the bible, which book did President John Quincy Adams take his oath of office on?


He took the oath of office on a book of constitutional law.

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