Castrating the Hippos

There is something about the problem in Colombia that feels very symbolic

In March, stories about the ecological benefits of Pablo Escobar’s hippos received good play in the world’s media. Someone is on their way to the PR Hall of Fame — there is one, for those asking, but there isn’t an actual building, which is too bad, because if there were, it would be the gaudiest piece of architecture imaginable — for managing to plant that story absolutely everywhere. So, ok, hippos in Colombia good. Check.

But now, suddenly, they are not so good. Now, they are “invasive,” and a threat to local wildlife and the broader environment. Their presence in Colombia, thousands of miles from their natural home, is now called an ecological “crisis.” So perhaps the PR Hall of Fame thing was premature. Supplanted by the person who planted this new story.

Reading this tale, and, look, everything about it is surreal, I thought this:

There is something here, about the chain of events, the weird confluence of disparate things that have led to, well, crisis, that reminded me of what is happening in the US. I don’t mean to make light of what is happening because it’s a lot, and it’s awful, and there are real people doing awful things and real people getting hurt and killed. There are people I know who are suffering just by their proximity to the events, whether physically or psychologically. The events at the Capitol feel like a culmination of…a chain of events, a confluence of disparate things that have led to…crisis.

I don’t remember when I first learned about Escobar’s menagerie — it’s possible I saw a special about private zoos on TV — but then there they were, in the background, in the first season of Narcos, and given the all-round lunacy on display, the zoo was the least crazy thing in the show. The show itself, if you haven’t seen it, is tremendous. Each season is slightly different — all are based on reality in the way that entertainments are based on reality — but the actors portray real people, and the outcomes are all well-documented. The first season deals with Escobar. The entire series is about the failed and misguided and expensive drug policies of the US, and on a broader level, of the way the rich countries of the world run roughshod over the poor.

Back to the zoo. I remember wondering what had happened to the animals after Escobar’s death (that is NOT a spoiler alert). Most of the animals were distributed to zoos around the world. But the four hippos that Escobar had brought in from Africa (three females and a male) had started to do what hippos do (I guess, I’m no hippo expert) and had become more than four. And the local authorities in Colombia didn’t have any experience handling an ornery aquatic beast that kills more people than any other land mammal in the world. (Here’s information about what kills us the most.) So they let the hippos stay put. Hippos like water and there was a lot of water. They like heat and there was heat. They like plants and grasses and Colombia had a lot of that as well. The authorities figured, what can a handful of hippos do to us?

Well, the hippos became more than a handful. And now those same authorities are wondering how to put the problem back in the cage, as it were, but they can’t. They might have to kill them (or “cull” which is the polite way of saying kill but call it what you want, they want to do away with the hippos, to extirpate them, etc) which, as you can imagine, is going to cause some distress and make the news (again — these hippos are media darlings) OR the authorities are going to try and castrate some of the males to stop them from being male hippos and fulfilling their biological destiny. The authorities aren’t so good at castrating hippos because hippos are big and ornery. And, again, the authorities in Colombia aren’t hippo experts. (At this point, it is fair to ask why they don’t bring hippo experts in and, yes, totally fair question, to which I can’t find an answer — the Colombians are being oddly self-reliant about handling this).

The entire thing, feels…like a metaphor. A series of unfortunate events, that flow like streams through the countryside, into a mighty river of tragedy, or at least tragicomedy, except for the hippos and definitely to the poor individuals attempting castration. And, honestly, the whole thing felt like America to me. The hippos are the MAGAvolk. Not taken seriously enough and left alone because it was the easy way out. Until they multiplied and there were no more easy ways out. The media, who tolerated them in a kind of folksy academic way and not exactly doing their jobs, much like the authorities. Trump as Escobar, sowing the seeds but not taking responsibility. The cult of entitlement (and let’s not forget Capitalism!) that lets someone in Colombia import hippos (!) in the first place. The mess they have left, continue to leave, and will leave behind.

Maybe it’s just me. I just hope this new story of Escobar’s “cocaine hippos” (which is what the headlines used to call them, when they were still cute) doesn’t portend…something. To paraphrase an old literature professor: Sometimes a hippo is just a hippo.

Writer. Complainer. I drink bourbon. I have edited media, worked in content and branding and strategy, and chances are I’ll do those things again. @arjunbasu

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