Putting the Hip in Hippo

In the 1980s a plucky sociopath named Pablo Escobar was at the height of his murderous tyranny as Colombia’s preeminent drug czar. No doubt it was a job as stressful as it was exhilarating, but at least it included dental. When he wasn’t burning someone alive in an oil drum, Escobar liked to relax and “get away from it all” at the Hacienda Napoles, his vast, sprawling luxury estate just north of Bogata.

Napoles included a massive house, a private airport (because: drugs), a sculpture park, a bullring (because: crazy amount of drugs), and a personal zoo with elephants, giraffes, ostriches, and hippopotamuses. This is the answer to that question: what do you get the guy who has everything? Livestock! But make it weird and illegal.

By all accounts, Escobar was not a good man, not a nice man. He is referred to as a “narcoterrorist,” which really puts a burn like “snowflake” into perspective. I’m trying to picture him wandering among the paddocks of his personal zoo and, specifically, hanging out with the hippos. Maybe these lumbering, salad-munching “river horses” relaxed him. “The hippos calm me,” writes Escoban in his diary. “I do my best criminally insane thinking among those beasts. It is as if their ancient souls know my own.” When it comes to pets and people, as the saying goes: “Who saved who?”

Apparently not the hippos. Escobar met his completely predictable bloody end in 1993. With his empire in smoldering ruins and the drug cartel power grab underway (Note: this is not something decided by a peaceful ballot process), the Hacienda Napoles eventually fell into the hands of the Colombian government. Most of the animals were donated to Colombian and other international zoos, except the hippos who managed to escape.

As someone who detests zoos with the hatred of a million exploding suns, cheers guys and gals! Run wild! Run free!

On a recent trip to New York City, I caught a news story about a woman who had breached the lion enclosure of the Bronx Zoo in what officials believed was her second offense. Why taunt death once when you can make a bingo-card game of it! Video footage showed the woman dressed in a tight-fitting red velvet cocktail dress edged in faux leopard fur. Eighty-zillion points for very bad taste. Would you go to the White House draped in the corpse of Richard Nixon? She’s waving and dancing a little as she blows kisses to, what appears to be a very, very tired looking lion. The caption for The New Yorker cartoon practically writes itself.

I watched this story and sent out some silent juju for the woman’s obvious mental health issues. But the lion got most of my sympathy. Having to live in one of those “enclosures,” which is the equivalent of a gated community in Boca must be how gangsters feel in witness protection. The animals might as well be wearing track suits and shopping at the local Kroger’s with their government per diem. It’s bad enough to have the toughest decision of your day be “do I lie on this rock for an hour or that one?” without adding in an enthusiastic stalker. In the video you can see the lion watching her and then looking away as if he’s mentally working the angles: Sure, lady, I could have you for lunch. And then what? You think they’re gonna send me to rehab so I can work on my maladjusted behavior? Hard pass on this suicide pact.

The dismantling of Escobar’s zoo was welcome and long overdue. And it really worked out for the hippos who somehow managed to slip under the radar completely. They continued to give zero fucks about anyone in charge — even a big, scary, psychotic narco czar — and simply went on with living their Oprah-esque best lives. In the past twenty-something years, the hippos have become feral, breeding like it’s MTV Spring Break Cancun. In the last eight years alone, their numbers have gone from about 35 to somewhere near 80. You get it, girl! The hippos have taken up residence in at least four area lakes and neighboring rivers. They not only menace the crap out of local farmers (maybe they picked up a thing or two from hanging around Escobar), but environmental and health officials have declared them a threat to the area’s biodiversity. They are so notorious, they have earned the nickname: Cocaine Hippos.

Hot. Damn.

Related: I would pay good money to see The Cocaine Hippos opening the next Rolling Stones tour.

Cocaine Hippos looking gangster AF. Image REUTERS/Albeiro Lopera

The Colombian government, being completely reasonable, assessed the Cocaine Hippo situation and suggested having the hippos killed or sterilized or both. I mean, when you’re in the business of castrating large mammals, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for a little “oopsie” with that knife, right? Especially if you’ve been drinking the night or fifteen minutes before. Animal rights groups responded with an enthusiastic, hell to the fucking no. They filed a lawsuit against the Colombian government. In the fall of 2021 a judge ruled that the hippos could be recognized as “people or interested persons with legal rights in the U.S,” setting the stage for a larger, longer, more expensive legal battle.

Hot. Damn. AGAIN.

I want the hippos saved partly because I hate the thought of killing non-food source animals. I grew up in New England where people hunt deer for sport (gross and inaccurate: the deer isn’t charging you with a stick and helmet. Give me a break), food, and population control. I get it, but I still don’t like it. However, I really want the hippos protected because they finally have some cred! Cocaine Hippos are cool! Give them leather jackets and cigarettes and a big, sexy sit down with Vanity Fair. They are moving up the charts alongside panthers and bald eagles. This is their time, don’t take it away.

I’ve never had the experience of coolness or any of its related affects: trendy, hip, in style, popular. Frankly, I’m not up to the task. Cool comes with a lot of maintenance. The budget on false eye-lashes and ironic products from the Sharper Image alone would break me. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t experimented.

When I was fourteen, I saw an article in a tween fashion magazine about transforming part of an old sweatshirt into a cute, kicky little headband. My hairstyle at the time could best be describe as “Mary Tyler Moore does electro-shock therapy, with bangs.” A headband, no, wait, a stylish headband seen in a magazine (!!!), would do the trick.

We didn’t own a sewing machine. My mother did any small mending by hand. These were minor details compared to my vision of confidently rolling through the halls of my middle-school in cinematic slow motion, relishing the looks and stares of approval, rather than the ones I usually got which were blank. I am a child of the 1980s. Our adolescent perspective was shaped by John Hughes movies and women rubbing up against Trans Ams on MTV. It was a heady, confusing times. Mixed messages abounded. But a hair accessory game changer? How hard could this be?

Smash cut to me at school on Monday wearing a sad strip of washed-a-thousand-times-white cotton in my hair. Because I couldn’t properly hem it, some of the hand stitches had come loose causing the band to fray. No probs, I thought. I’ll just triage that with a safety pin and make sure that part is tucked underneath the hair at the back of my neck. Smart! Also: No one will ever know and I will glide through the horror show of a typical middle-school day like goddamn Cinderella.

“Hey, is that like, is that like part of a sweatshirt or something?” came the slightly cracking voice of the boy sitting behind me in homeroom. The boy who, of course, I liked, liked.

“What? I don’t know. It’s a headband,” I said, the eye-roll both literal and tonal.

“Yeah. It looks like a sweatshirt. Is that a safety pin?” The question accompanied by blatant snickering.

“I made it myself!” I blurted as if this was going to make it better.

Loud laughter. The boy’s best friend, whom I also considered crush-worthy, joined in. I scowled and muttered a few more “whatevers,” saved by the start of class. I’m sure those jug heads saw me as easy game. I cared, but not enough to deter me from continuing to wear my pathetic, homemade headband. A few times a week it made an appearance, even as it kept unraveling, the material shedding itself in thin strings of cotton flotsam as if it were desperate to distance itself from my awful unhipness.

What I sensed then, but realize now is that cool is less about sticking the landing than it is about making the landing stick. It is attitude and mindset coupled with equal parts necessary self-delusion and courage. That is true whether you’re a Cocaine Hippo, exploiting the garbage hand you’ve been dealt for your own benefit, or an awkward, fourteen-year-old girl keeping her insecurities hid with cotton and safety pins.

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Sheila M.

Sheila M.

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Author: League of Extraordinarily Funny Women (Running Press); writer & photographer & enthusiastic New Englandaaahhh