More than 80 hippos previously owned by Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar have a unique distinction in US law: They are the first non-human creatures to be legally considered people.
The US District Court for the Southern District of Ohio recognised the late Escobar’s infamous “Cocaine Hippos” as legal persons for the first time in the US.
The ruling on October 15 came on the same day the Animal Legal Defence Fund filed an application on behalf of the hippo plaintiffs in Colombia intended to stop that country’s government from killing the animals. The ALDF announced the decision in a press release Wednesday.
The hippos are descendants of four illegally imported by Escobar. They were set free after his death in 1993. Since then, the hippos have increased their numbers to more than 80, and they are reportedly wreaking havoc on the local ecosystem.
However, some scientists have argued they may actually be “restoring ecological functions” lost for thousands of years due to “human-driven extinctions.”
In July, Colombian attorney Luis Domingo Gómez Maldonado filed a lawsuit on behalf of the animals to save them from being killed, saying that sterilisation was a better option, according to Newsweek.
Although Colombia law gives non-human creatures legal standing to bring lawsuits to protect their interests, that country’s legal system can’t compel someone in the US to produce documents supporting their case.
However, a US law allows interested persons in Colombia to go to a US federal court to seek the ability to obtain documents and testimony, so the ALDF applied for the hippos’ rights to compel two Ohio wildlife experts who study nonsurgical sterilisation to provide testimony on behalf of the plaintiffs.
By granting the application, the District Court recognised animals as legal persons for the first time in US history.
“It’s obvious that animals actually do have legal rights, for example, the right not to be cruelly abused or killed … but a legal right is only as valuable as one’s right to enforce that legal right,” Christopher Berry, the attorney overseeing the US case who also serves as managing director at the Animal Legal Defence Fund, told Gizmodo. “The legal system doesn’t … have precedent for animals’ interests directly appearing in court. There’s no precedent for animals having a legal standing to enforce their own rights.”
The ALDF news release Wednesday said that the testimony of wildlife experts Elizabeth Berkeley and Richard Berlinski would be used to support use of a contraceptive called PZP. ALDF Communications Director Elizabeth Putsche told HuffPost on Thursday that just before its application was granted, the Colombian government announced it had already started giving the hippos a drug called GonaCon. But the ALDF’s experts in the court case had instead recommended the contraceptive PZP as more appropriate for hippos.
Putsche said Wednesday’s ruling will allow the organisation to collect more testimony from experts on the most effective and safest form of sterilisation for the hippopotamuses. The ALDF is also continuing to monitor the situation to ensure none of the hippos is killed.
ALDF Executive Director Stephen Wells said in the release Wednesday that “animals have the right to be free from cruelty and exploitation, and the failure of U.S. courts to recognise their rights impedes the ability to enforce existing legislative protections.”
He called the court order “a critical milestone in the broader animal status fight to recognise that animals have enforceable rights.”