For the first time, an American court has recognized legal personality in animals. And not just any: the descendants of Pablo Escobar’s hippos, which have multiplied in Colombia since the death of the famous drug trafficker 30 years ago. This recognition was granted in the context of a legal battle aimed at blocking their slaughter.
Pablo Escobar, in his heyday, had imported a few hippos to fill the zoo at his hacienda in Napoles, a hundred kilometers south of his stronghold of Medellin. After he was shot dead in 1993 by Colombian security forces, most other animals (flamingos, giraffes, zebras, kangaroos …) were sold, but not the pachyderms, which proliferated. Until becoming what is reputed to be the largest colony of these animals outside Africa. They gradually became an environmental concern and a threat to the inhabitants (attacks by fishermen have been reported).
Faced with the problem, the Colombian government began to sterilize the animals. In particular, dart guns containing a contraceptive are used, more than surgical sterilization. A lawyer, Luis Domingo Gomez Maldonado, in July filed a lawsuit on behalf of hippos in Colombia, which already recognizes legal personality for animals. The aim is to prevent the hippos from being euthanized, but also to ensure that the government uses another drug to sterilize them than the one currently in use.
It is in this context that the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) made a request to allow two sterilization experts based in the United States to be able to testify, in order to support the appeal. Ohio federal court magistrate Karen Litkovitz agreed to the request last week, in the name of a U.S. law allowing “An interested person” to claim a US deposition in a foreign dispute. The interested parties are therefore, in this case, the hippos.
For Christopher Berry, lawyer for the ALDF, the importance of this decision is twofold: “First, it will help the hippos not to die – this is its immediate consequence.” “More broadly, it is the first concrete example of an American court authorizing animals to exercise a legal right in their own name”, he told AFP. Other cases, he said, are slowly making their way into the courts in the United States. The association represents, for example, a horse named Justice in a case of cruelty and neglect towards an animal. It is not certain that the hippo decision will influence these other cases, “But it is certain that this is relevant and important in the larger framework of the discussion around animal rights”, says Christopher Berry.
The movement to grant legal status to animals has also gained momentum globally. In 2014, an Argentinian court ruled that an orangutan named Sandra had suffered wrongful imprisonment at a zoo in Buenos Aires. She is now in a shelter in Florida.