The descendants of hippos, which once belonged to the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, can be recognized in the USA as persons or “interested persons” with legal rights after a federal court order.
The case concerns a lawsuit against the Colombian government as to whether the hippos should be killed or sterilized, the number of which is growing rapidly and threatening biodiversity.
An animal rights group welcomes the Order as a milestone in a long-awaited effort to induce the US judicial system to give animals personality status. But in Colombia, where the hippos live, the order will have no weight, said a legal expert.
“The decision has no impact in Colombia because it only has an impact within its own territory. It will be the Colombian authorities who decide what to do with the hippos and not the American ones, ”said Camilo Burbano Cifuentes, professor of criminal law at the Universidad Externado de Colombia.
The “cocaine hippos” are descendants of animals that Escobar illegally imported to his Colombian ranch in the 1980s when he ruled the country’s drug trafficking. After his death in a shooting with authorities in 1993, the hippos were abandoned on the property and allowed to thrive without natural predators – their numbers have grown from 35 to between 65 and 80 over the past eight years.
A group of scientists has warned that the Hippos are a major threat the biodiversity of the area and could lead to fatal human encounters. They advocate that some of the animals be killed. A government agency has started sterilizing some of the hippos, but there is debate over the safest methods.
In the lawsuit, attorneys for the Animal Legal Defense Fund asked the US District Court in Cincinnati to give the hippos “interested” status so that two Ohio wildlife sterilization experts could be dismissed on the case.
Federal Judge Karen Litkovitz in Cincinnati granted the motion on October 15. The animal rights group, based near San Francisco, said it was the first time animals were declared legal entities in the United States
Her lawyers argued that the hippos should be considered “interested persons” under US law, as lawyers for the hippos can file lawsuits to protect their interests in Colombia.
They pointed to a federal law that allows anyone who is an “interested person” in a foreign trial to seek a federal court to allow them to testify in the US in support of their case.
Christopher Berry, the chief attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, called it a brief but profound judgment.
“This is really part of a larger movement that is campaigning for animal interests to be represented in court,” he said. “We are not calling for a new law to be passed. We only demand that animals have the opportunity to enforce the rights already granted to them. “
While animals have been given legal rights in India, Pakistan and Argentina, the US courts have not been ready to do so.
A Connecticut judge called a petition filed four years ago by an animal rights group to give personality to three elephants in a traveling petting zoo “totally frivolous”.
In another closely watched case, the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, agreed in May on whether an elephant at the Bronx Zoo should be given humane rights and taken to a sanctuary.
Previous judgments have dismissed the claims from the animal rights groups. The zoo claims that it would set dangerous precedent to give the elephant named Happy a legal “person” and described the effort as “ridiculous.” Gun rights groups have also criticized the move out of concerns that it could interfere with hunting or set a precedent.
Supporters point to court rulings that granted companies legal rights and viewed them as legal entities – on the grounds that animals should be treated equally under the law.
“Legal personality is only the possibility that your interests are heard and represented in court,” said Berry. “It’s about enforcing the rights that you already have under animal cruelty laws and other protective laws.”