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hippopotamus

28 october 2017

Hippos look very cute, though I remember learning somewhere that they are extremely dangerous. Edgar Williams, in Hippopotamus for the Reaktion Animal series, confirms the fearsomeness of hippos, but not their ferocity. Like most animals, hippos will avoid people, whether they meet us by day in the water where they wallow, or by night in the fields where they feed. Provoked, a hippo is fully capable of trampling you flat or biting you in half. But they prefer to avoid provocation.

That's good news if you live near hippo populations. The nearest one to me, or to any New Worlder reading this, resides at Hacienda Napoles, Colombia. Drug lord Pablo Escobar wanted some pet hippos, and imported some that ended up going feral in the river systems between Medellín and Bogotá. Reports are that the Colombian government tried to control the hippo population, a few years ago, by castrating the males. This did not work, possibly because of that trampling-when-provoked reaction I mentioned above. Hippos are still unlikely to become widespread across Texas, but in these days of climate change and invasive species, one should never say never.

Hippos are quite collectible. My partner keeps two small ceramic hippos in a bookcase, one half-visible as if the shelf were a waterline, the other rearing up with its mouth open wide. My father was enamored of William the Hippo, a key player in the Metropolitan Museum's branding campaign. William, like many Egyptian-art hippos, is bright blue for some reason and always seems cheerful. And I remember playing Hungry, Hungry, Hippos with children over the years, though I don't think I or my son ever owned a copy. A sample search on eBay for "Hippopotamus Collectibles" shows 797 items as of this writing. Granted, not as many as camels (1,026) or giraffes (2,031), but enough to drain your bank account several times over if you try to corner the market.

Williams tours quickly through the natural history of the hippo. There are two species, common and pygmy; their closest evolutionary relatives, appropriately, are the whales. (Hippos are sometimes grouped with elephants and rhinos as "pachyderms," but that's purely a structural description of their skin, not a taxonomic group.) Williams devotes quite a bit of time to Western artistic and scientific imaginations of the hippo. Like many things Egyptian, the hippo was fairly well-known to the Romans and then quite obscure to medieval Europeans. In modern times, the hippo went extinct in Egypt, meaning that the West's direct encounters with hippopotami tended to be those of big-game hunters in sub-Saharan Africa, or at zoos, where populations have grown sustainably since the mid-19th century. Obaysch, the pioneering hippo of Victorian London, sees his story told at length in Hippopotamus.

Meanwhile in Africa, pygmy hippos may be on the way to extinction as their forest habitat dwindles. The common hippo does not pose a great conservation concern right now, by contrast to some other African megafauna; but inevitably, people and hippos are starting to compete for living room even in the riverine habitats that have so long protected the big beasts.

Hippos have never proven domesticable. Though individuals can become quite tractable, they are obviously impractical as pets. They are useful in advertising and available as figures of ridicule (or to ridicule humans by comparison to). There is no great body of hippopotamus literature. Williams cites Lewis Carroll's hippopotamus, "descending from a bus" (124), and T.S. Eliot's "The Hippopotamus" … I think Williams gives Eliot's poem short shrift, actually, so I'll give it just slightly shorter here.

Williams notes that the first stanza of Eliot's "Hippopotamus" contrasts the animal unfavorably to the "True Church" – suggesting that the piece "explores his faith within the Catholic Church" (128). But "The Hippopotamus" predates Eliot's conversion (which was to high-church Anglo-Catholicism, not to the Roman church); and "The Hippopotamus" is more satiric than spiritual. It ends in paradox. The "'potamus" ascends to heaven, where

He shall be washed as white as snow,
By all the martyr’d virgins kist,
While the True Church remains below
Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.
I'm actually not sure what to make of Eliot's "Hippopotamus" except that it's ponderous while trying to be arch. It echoes a much sweeter hippo poem, Théophile Gautier's "L'hippopotame". Gautier's hippo lives, anatopically, in the "jungles of Java," and is too big and tough to give a hoot about anything. He ignores all the other fierce beasts, and laughs at the bullets that soldiers fire at him. Gautier concludes by moralizing the hippo in a way that might contain a religious trope but doesn't necessarily have to:
Je suis comme l'hippopotame:
De ma conviction couvert,
Forte armure que rien n'entame,
Je vais sans peur par le désert.

[I'm like the hippopotamus.
Shielded by my conviction,
A strong armor that nothing can pierce,
I walk through the wasteland without fear.]
Long may he walk.

Williams, Edgar. Hippopotamus. London: Reaktion, 2017.

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