In Becoming Fearless: Finding courage in the African Wilderness, we shared the rivers we traveled on with thousands of hippopotami in their home territory. Today wild hippos only live in rivers and lakes in sub-Saharan Africa and in Colombia, where in 1980 drug lord Pablo Escobar imported four hippos to join the menagerie of exotic animal he collected for his estate. In 1993, the hippos escaped, and with no local predators to keep the population in check, they have grown in ranks to 130 in the environs of the Magdalena River.
If a resident of the United States wants to see a hippo, other options than signing up for an African safari exist, but you won’t find them roaming wild in any American lake or river. As of 2021, there were 27 zoos across the country that house 65 hippos in reinforced enclosures to protect the curious viewing public from close encounters with the beasts.
Though the idea of hippos congregating in large herds along the Mississippi River sounds like a pretty far-fetched idea today, back in 1910, a plan to import and herd hippos in the Mississippi came before the U.S. Congress. The American Hippo Bill, House Resolution 23261, introduced by Louisiana representative Robert F. Broussard, authorized $250,000 importing hippopotami from Africa to create ranches in the Mississippi River bayous. The United States was facing a nationwide meat shortage, and the Mississippi River was being invaded and its shipping routes clogged by an invasive aquatic plant, the water hyacinth.
Both Former President Theodore Roosevelt and the U.S. Department of Agriculture supported the plan. They argued the hippos would devour the fish-killing water hyacinths and their fatty meat would provide an ample supply of bacon tasting meat to American households. Despite garnering a broad base of support, reportedly the passage of the bill failed by just one vote.