Do you like your hippopotamus rare or well done? Although the idea of eating lake cow meat might sound ridiculous, there was a point in time when Texas was seriously considering making the switch.
In the early 1900s, high immigration rates and overgrazed rangeland prompted what was called the “Meat Question,” or a nationwide demand for meat that was unsustainable. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post declared that Americans would soon be leaving Texas beef behind for hippo bacon.
Writer Sarah Gailey says the U.S. wasn’t just looking into starting a hippo meat industry – they were excited for it. In her book River of Teeth, Gailey says that a man named Robert Brassard identified two problems that the hippo switch could solve. First, there were too many people and not enough animals to feed to them. Second, an invasive water hyacinth was choking off the trade routes in Mississippi waterways. He proposed a bill that would allow the country to import hippopotami and ranch them for meat. The animals would be put into the Mississippi and eat the invasive water hyacinth.
“Then we’d eat the hippos, and everybody wins,” Gailey says. “Except for the hippos, who don’t win because they’ve been eaten, but he wasn’t too worried about them.”
Something Brassard didn’t take into account, however, was the behavioral difference between hippos and cows.
“Giant animals with huge teeth don’t behave quite the way that we’d like them to behave,” Gailey says. “Imagine if you took a cow and you bumped it up to about 3,000 pounds, and then gave it a mouth full of daggers and a temper like you would not believe.”
As radical a solution as it was, the transition to hippo meat very nearly became a reality, failing in the U.S. Senate by one vote. Gailey says one of the biggest lessons to be gleaned from the hippo meat proposal is that human ideas rarely trump those established by nature.
“A lot of our attempts to mitigate what we consider problems in nature lead us down a bad road,” Gailey says.
Written by Rachel Zein