Today in Michigan history: Circus hippopotamus escapes into the Detroit River

In 1863 a circus hippopotamus escaped and jumped into the Detroit River

(Ken Bohn/San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance via AP) (Ken Bohn, 2021 © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance)

DETROIT – On this day, nearly 160 years ago, a circus hippopotamus escaped his cage and jumped into the Detroit River, according to Michigan Day by Day, a website run by a retired Michigan State University librarian.

Due to the weight of the elephants and the hippopotamuses, the animals had to be transported on a separate boat when the circus was making its way from Buffalo to Detroit. When the boat was just six miles south of Downtown, the hippopotamus escaped from his cage and jumped overboard into the Detroit River.

His trainer, an Egyptian man named Ali, was obviously distraught at this sight and reacted swiftly. Taking with him on a rowboat a large black mastiff, he set out to capture the fugitive hippo.

The aforementioned dog was actually this hippopotamus’s companion. Supposedly the mastiff had been trained to sleep in the cage with the hippo which led them to be the best of friends.

The dog jumped in after his friend the hippopotamus and led him to the shore. Ali was able to secure him on the shore and proceed to Detroit.

Accounts of this event report that the hippopotamus was in fine condition after his leisurely swim.

Although this story seems unbelievable, this is not the first time the Detroit River has briefly inhabited non-native species. Slippery the sea lion apparently escaped a marine park in Ontario and made his way down to Sandusky, Ohio, through the Detroit River. Along with Slippery, baby alligators have also been found in the waters of the river.


About the Author:

Morgan is a senior at Wayne State University studying political science and communications.