Escobar’s hippos recognized as legal persons by US court

Hippos in river in Colombia, photo: DPA
Hippos in river in Colombia, photo: DPA

In a legal first, a US court has recognized animals as legal persons, able to protect their own interests. The hippos are the descendants of four African hippos once owned by Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.

Last July, a lawsuit was filed by attorney Luis Domingo Gomez Maldonado on behalf of hippos in Colombia, which already recognizes legal personhood for animals. Maldonado wants to stop the government from euthanizing the animals.

As part of his private zoo, Escobar brought three female African hippopotamuses and one male to Colombia in the 1980s. After he died in 1993, the Colombian government left the hippos on his property in Medellín.

Those initial four hippos created a population of around 120 to 150 hippos. Even though the hippos are living their best life in the area with no natural predators and suitable climate, some scientists believe they will become a problem for the local ecosystem. So the Colombian government has plans to kill or sterilize them.

Last week, 24 hippos had been shot with darts containing the contraceptive GonaCon. Maldonado says that it is not clear if the Colombian government will use the medicine safely, and if authorities still intend to kill some of the animals.

Maldonado wants the government to give the hippos a different contraceptive called PZP (porcine zona pellucida), which has already been successfully used in hippos in zoos. PZP is recommended by Animal Balance, an international organization that focuses on the sterilization of animals.

Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) filed an application at the US District Court for the Southern District of Ohio seeking to allow two American experts, who live in Ohio, to provide testimony about PZP to support the hippos’ case.

Even though the lawsuit was filed in Colombia, US law allows those involved in foreign legal actions to be recognized by American courts.

On that basis, the ALDF argued that since hippos are plaintiffs in an ongoing Colombian lawsuit, they qualify as ‘interested persons’ that should be legally recognized by US courts.

Judge Karen Litkovitz granted the request of the plaintiffs, the “Community of Hippopotamuses Living in the Magdalena River.”

“In granting the application…the court recognized the hippos as legal persons,” ALDF said in a statement. Thanks to the court order, the testimony of Animal Balance’s wildlife experts, Elizabeth Berkeley and Richard Berlinski can be used to support Maldonado’s case.

“The court’s order authorizing the [Colombian] hippos to exercise their legal right to obtain information in the United States is a critical milestone in the broader animal status fight to recognize that animals have enforceable rights,” said ALDF director Stephen Wells.

Wells said that animals have the right to be free from cruelty and exploitation. He added that “the failure of US courts to recognize” that right had made it difficult to enforce existing animal protection laws.

In another case, ALDF is representing a horse named Justice who is suing his abuser of cruelty and neglect. And The Nonhuman Rights Project represents Happy the elephant, who stays at the Bronx Zoo, in a habeas corpus (unlawful detention) case.

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