Not all problems are created equal. Some are just larger and more complicated than others. It is in these situations, where the thorniest problems live, that truly unique and out-of-the-box ideas are required. In 1910, water hyacinth created issues that pushed leaders in Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana to their wits’ end.
Water hyacinth was introduced to the United States in 1884 as a gorgeous, petite plant that would be the next big hit for water gardens across the nation. When the water gardens became overgrown by this plant, gardeners pulled out the water hyacinth and discarded the extra plants into rivers and canals. Fast forward just a few years and these plants were blocking streams, damaging bridges, and breeding mosquitoes by the millions. The US Congress charged the US Army Corps of Engineers to get these plants under control. Though massive effort and innovation followed, they were still unable to gain any ground in controlling the water hyacinth.
At times like these, revolutionary thinkers, particularly those with larger-than-life personalities, rise to the top. Louisiana Representative Robert Broussard was the right guy, in the right place, at the right time. Broussard was facing competing calamities: water hyacinth invasion and a nationwide meat shortage. It was under this pressure that he had an idea that would solve both problems at once: Bring in hippos to eat the water hyacinth and then we eat the hippos. That’s right, the plan was to import hippopotamuses from Africa as a biological control for the water hyacinth and as a food source for the meat shortage – what could possibly go wrong?
They quickly branded the new meat product as “Lake Cow Bacon” and wrote a bill (H.R. 23261), which later became known as The American Hippo Bill, to pitch the new idea to congress. A congressional hearing was arranged and experts in food production and African animals set about to convince a hungry, plant-jammed nation that hippos were the solution they needed.
Fortunately, a few wise congressmen had reservations. These congressmen were not convinced that, 1. Americans would want to eat hippo meat and 2. that the hippos would actually eat the problem weeds while not causing other problems. As such, the issue was tabled for future deliberation. During this waiting period, World War I started in Europe, the meat shortage was solved with new cattle feeding techniques, and Senator Broussard also passed away. Like so many other grand ideas, this American Hippo Bill was relegated to the dust bin of history.
But now, let’s ask what could have been. Would the hippo bill actually have helped solve two problems at once? To answer this, let’s consider Pablo Escobar’s “Cocaine Hippos.” In the 1980s, the notorious cocaine kingpin of Colombia imported four hippos for a personal zoo outside Bogota. After his death in 1993, the hippos were released to fend for themselves. Those four original animals have now expanded into a naturalized population of between 70 and 90 individuals, which has caused extraordinary environmental impact in Colombia.
For example, hippos rarely eat aquatic plants like water hyacinth. Though the hippo spends as much as 16 hours a day in the water, they rarely eat while in the water. Instead, they leave the water at night to feed on grasses. After returning to the water, their feces and constant stomping in the lake sediments encourage significant and prolonged algae blooms. Colombia has noticed a great reduction in native aquatic plants and fishes due to this physical disturbance and decline in water quality. Moreover, these 4,000-pound creatures have been called “unpredictable” by their admirers and a “menace” by their foes. Regardless, the Colombian hippo population is still growing at an estimated 10% a year with no end in sight.
So, it looks like America dodged a bullet in 1910 when congress decided to hit the pause button on the hippo bill. Fortunately, in 2022 we are not trying to manage water hyacinth and hippos at the same time!