Legendary was Hacienda Napoles where Pablo Escobar decreed his stately pleasure dome

Monday, January 22nd, 2018

I’m not sure what led Steve Sailer to cite a two-year-old National Geographic story about Pablo Escobar’s escaped hippos, but I immediately remembered the story from long, long ago (2003):

Legendary was Xanadu where Kubla Khan decreed his stately pleasure dome. Today, almost as legendary is Florida’s Xanadu…or Pablo Escobar’s 7,400-acre Hacienda Napoles.

Commenter Polearm noted that we nearly filled the United States with the great beasts at the beginning of the 20th Century:

America was withering under a serious meat shortage at the time. Beef prices had soared as rangeland had been ruined by overgrazing, and a crippled industry struggled to satisfy America’s explosively growing cities, an unceasing wave of immigrants, and a surging demand for meat abroad. There were more mouths to feed than ever, but the number of cows in the country had been dropping by millions of head a year. People whispered about the prospect of eating dogs. The seriousness of the Meat Question, and the failure to whip together some brave and industrious solution to it, was jarring the nation’s self-confidence and self-image. It was a troubling sign that maybe the country couldn’t keep growing as fast and recklessly as it had been. Maybe there were limits after all.

Now, though, someone had an answer. The answer was hippopotamuses. One Agricultural Department official estimated that an armada of free-range hippos, set moping through the bayous of Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, would easily yield a million tons of meat a year. Already, Representative Broussard had dispatched a field agent on a fact-finding mission. The man, a native of southern Africa, found the Louisiana swamps “wildly dismal and forbidding.” (The “silence strike[s] one with an almost unforgettable horror,” he wrote in his report, titled “Why and How to Place Hippopotamus in the Louisiana Lowlands.”) Still, the place was perfect for hippos. His conclusion: “The hippopotamus would find no difficulty living in Louisiana.”

Apparently, the animals tasted pretty good, too, especially the fatty brisket part, which could be cured into a delicacy that a supportive New York Times editorial was calling, euphemistically, “lake cow bacon.” (“Toughness is only skin deep,” another reporter noted.) Congressman Broussard’s office was receiving laudatory letters from ordinary citizens, commending his initiative-taking and ingenuity. Several volunteered to be part of the expedition to bring the great beasts back.

In other words, in the encroaching malaise of 1910, it was easy to be gripped by the brilliance of the hippopotamus scheme, to feel hippopotamuses resonating not just as a way of sidestepping catastrophic famine, but as a symbol of American greatness being renewed. Burnham’s generation had seen the railroad get synched across the wild landscape like a bridle and the near solid swarms of buffalo and passenger pigeons get erased. America had dynamited fish out of rivers, dredged waterways, felled and burned forests, and peeled silver from the raw wreckage of what had once been mountains. The frontier was now closed. So much had been accomplished and so much taken. It was clear that a once boundless-seeming land did have boundaries, and with those limits revealed, you couldn’t help but feel like you were drifting listlessly between them. There was a sense in the country of: Now what? And, lurking beneath that: What have we done?

Another commenter, the one they call Desanex, shared one of his favorite paintings, The Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt by Peter Paul Rubens:

The Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt by Peter Paul Rubens


  1. Graham says:

    I well remember the many stories about plans to introduce the camel to the deserts of America. If I remember correctly, they actually did that for a time. I think that was for military and transport use.

    Now this scheme would have been epic. I gather those things are quite dangerous. I wonder if the gators of America would have suddenly wondered what in hell those huge things were.

    The Rubens image captures the rest of the story. And that looks like a pretty small hippo.

  2. I got a charge out of this essay, both for the historical memories it evoked and for an allusion you might not have intended: In Norse mythology, a Great Beast was an evil, quasi-divine creature of immense power and appetite, unstoppable by Man. If freed, it could not be killed; it could only be driven back to Tartarus by the massed power of the gods.

    To compound the laughs, the grove of Idun, Keeper of the Apples, was regarded by the Norse as the most important feature of Asgard, because the apples from her grove had the power to turn mortals into gods — gods that Odin could then use as “sword fodder” against the Great Beasts, should they succeed in escaping Tartarus.

    I’m having trouble seeing hippos in that role, but you never know what a spell in the Everglades could do to them…

  3. Sam J. says:

    That Polearm link was an astounding read. I love stories that tie together so much detail like that. This is the link


  4. Isegoria says:

    I thought I knew my Norse mythology fairly well, but I didn’t immediately recognize “great beast” as the literal translation of the name Jörmungandr (the Midgard Serpent).

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