Jon Mooallem is fascinated by the relationships between humans and other animals, a topic he explores in his 2013 book Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America. Mooallem is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, and a frequent contributor to other magazines and radio shows, including This American Life, Harpers and WIRED, where for a short time he wrote a column called This Week in Wild Animals.
In researching Wild Ones, Mooallem came across a story that sounded too strange to be true: a plan to bring hippopotamus ranching to the bayous of Louisiana in the early 20th century. The hippos would solve two problems at once, proponents argued: They would provide a new source of protein for a nation in the midst of a meat shortage, and they’d gobble up invasive water hyacinth that was choking waterways and killing fish. The idea made it all the way to the U.S. Congress, which held a hearing on the matter in 1910.
Mooallem first told the story at a Pop-Up magazine in San Francisco in 2010. The story “American Hippopotamus” finally appeared in print in December 2013, in The Atavist. It turned out to be about more than just hippo ranching. It’s a story about a more idealistic time in our nation’s history and two men — spies and sworn enemies — who found a common cause in the hippopotamus scheme.
Here, Mooallem tells TON guest contributor Greg Miller about how he researched this century-old story and tried to make its characters come to life:
I started Wild Ones in the spring of 2010 and one of the first things I did was I got a little obsessed with this guy named William Temple Hornaday. He was a taxidermist turned conservationist in the early 1900s. I was reading this giant book he wrote called Our Vanishing Wildlife. It’s basically one big screed, but in the middle of it there’s this one detail where he says something like, how stupid it is that Mr. Broussard thinks he needs to bring African animals to America to replace the ones we’ve annihilated. I didn’t know what that meant, but then a little Googling brought me to the transcript of that Congressional hearing in 1910.
Reading through that document was just mind blowing. They would say things like, why not bring zebras, they would make the plains so much more beautiful. And, giraffes taste delicious and the leather is great, let’s put them in Arizona. Read more »