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Escobar’s Hippos Test Limits of When Animals Are Legally People

Nov. 5, 2021, 10:01 AM

When Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar was killed in 1993, he left officials with a unique problem that grows to nearly 4,000 pounds, claims hundreds of lives annually in its natural habitat, and has grabbed international attention after an Ohio federal court issued a ruling that animal activists still celebrate.

Escobar’s four hippopotamuses multiplied at his unattended estate, Hacienda Nápoles, located about 60 miles east of Medellín, Colombia. The hippos spread out and found a home in the nearby Magdalena River, and they now number nearly 100 with no clear obstacles in their path.

Colombian officials are trying to figure out what to do with the animals. The government floated the idea of killing them and it’s now testing a form of birth control, but death is still on the table.

The legal battle over the hippos’ future in Colombia will determine whether they live or die. The case may also show the strengths or weaknesses of the country’s animal laws. The potential outcome has the attention of activists in the U.S. who want courts worldwide to recognize that animals are more than property, and that they should have a legal say in the animals’ well-being.

“Legal Persons”

The Colombian case, which seeks non-lethal methods to control the hippo population in the country, reached the U.S. Oct. 15 after an American animal organization asked an Ohio federal court to allow an attorney to gather expert testimony. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio granted the request, which was celebrated as the first time animals were recognized as “legal persons” in the U.S.

However, the result may be more of a technicality than a precedent-setting decision.

Luis Domingo Gómez Maldonado represents the Community of Hippopotamuses Living in the Magdalena River, which are plaintiffs in the lawsuit in Colombia. Colombian courts recognize that animals have standing to bring their claims, according to the discovery request filed in Ohio. U.S. courts usually don’t interfere with a foreign legal systems’ findings on who qualify as a litigant in that country.

The one-page order, issued by Magistrate Judge Karen L. Litkovitz, will allow Gómez Maldonado, an attorney and professor at the University of Jorge Tadeo Lozano, in Bogotá, to depose two wildlife experts to show there are non-lethal ways to control the hippo population in Colombia.

“The court’s order authorizing the 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 Stephen Wells, executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund—the organization that filed the request on the hippos’ behalf in Ohio. Law firm Strauss Troy also represented the animals.

“Animals have the right to be free from cruelty and exploitation, and the failure of U.S. courts to recognize their rights impedes the ability to enforce existing legislative protections,” Wells said.

Kathy Hessler, a professor and director of the Animal Law Clinic at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., said the issue in Ohio was a “pretty basic international law case.”

“As much as the people who are working for animal protection might want it to be a landmark case, saying the U.S. has made a substantive determination that animals are legal persons, I don’t think that’s what this is,” Hessler said.

“Con Plata o Plomo”

Hunters acting under the approval of local authorities killed one hippo in 2009. This prompted outrage among animal activists and residents who grew fond of the animals and benefit from them financially as a tourist attraction, according to Dairne Ryan, the Latin America project liaison at Animal Balance.

A Colombian judge’s order currently prevents officials from hunting and killing the hippos, according to David Echeverri López, a forest and biodiversity coordinator at CORNARE—an environmental agency in Colombia.

The problem with the hippos is that they’re an invasive species that compete with native species, such as the manatee and capybara, for resources, Echevarri López said. The hippos are unpredictable and pose a danger to fishermen and tourists, he said.

They attacked two people so far, and while both survived, one suffered serious injuries, Echevarri López said.

Despite the danger, the hippos are a very charismatic species, he said. They attracted global media attention, which spurred local officials to think about other ways to handle the problem, he said. Colombia is asking for help from other countries to take in the hippos, Echevarri López said. They moved five hippos to zoos in Colombia and two to Ecuador, he said.

Officials are looking at all possible options to try and keep the hippos alive and safe, but if there’s no other way, they will kill them, Echevarri López said.

It’s a complex issue and it has created a lot of discussion and polarization in the country, he added. Dealing with the hippos is costly and dangerous, and any solution will take time, he said.

The government is now testing a contraceptive called GonaCon, which was never used on hippos in the past, according to Ryan. The safer option would be to use a contraceptive called PZP, which has been used on hippos, Ryan said.

The ideal outcome would be to let the hippos “live out their lives, to be sterilized” and to solve the problem in a way that doesn’t negatively affect nearby communities, Ryan said.

Gómez Maldonado said he’s afraid officials will revert to Escobar’s way of solving problems “con plata o plomo,” or with money or lead.

The Southern District of Ohio’s ruling is important because it allows him and others to make similar requests to have experts defend the rights of other animals, Gómez Maldonado said. He hopes in the end that Colombia will respect the hippos’ lives.

Animal Law Developments

There were significant but unnoticed developments in American animal law recently, according to Hessler.

Every state now allows people to leave money to their animals in their wills, she said. Some states allow courts to take the animals’ interests into account when couples divorce, she said.

This is a huge shift, according to Hessler, where people recognize that their relationships with companion animals are “much closer to the familial relationship than a property relationship.”

Steven Wise—founder and president of the Nonhuman Rights Project—has tried to convince courts that animals are more than property for more than 30 years. His organization brings habeas corpus cases—a way to challenge unlawful imprisonment—and they argue that animals are entitled to the common law right to bodily liberty.

The group sued the Bronx Zoo on behalf of an elephant named Happy. They filed a petition in a New York trial court in 2018 seeking to transfer Happy from “her solitary, lonely one-acre exhibit” in the zoo to an elephant sanctuary. A judge denied the petition in February 2020, but she noted that the organization’s arguments were “extremely persuasive.”

The group’s appeal was denied in December. The organization then turned to the state’s highest court where the case is scheduled for May. This marks the first time the highest court of an English-speaking jurisdiction will hear a habeas corpus case brought on behalf of a non-human being, according to Wise’s organization.

The case could take more than a year to reach a conclusion, Wise said. In the meantime, he said his group will bring similar cases across the U.S. and internationally.

Lessons Learned

There are many lessons to learn from the hippos’ case, according to Hessler. The primary lesson is that people shouldn’t take animals from a place where they belong into a place they don’t belong, she said.

Another lesson is to act quickly to fix problems before they become insurmountable, she said. More work needs to be done to bring science and animals’ interests into the court system, according to Hessler.

“The people in the community have grown to love these animals and spoke out on their behalf,” Hessler said. “It just shows that we do want to have relationships with animals, and we can try to find ways to do that in a positive way.”

“When people speak out for animals who can’t protect themselves, I think that’s a mark of a better place where society has gotten to, and that’s where we should strive for,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Maya Earls in Washington at mearls@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Carmen Castro-Pagán at ccastro-pagan@bloomberglaw.com; Meghashyam Mali at mmali@bloombergindustry.com

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