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The hippopotamuses, descendants of some that belonged to the late Colombian drug trafficker Pablo Escobar, were declared “legal persons” by an Ohio court. The ruling makes history as it considers an animal as such for the first time and seeks to protect these African mega-herbivores from castration in Colombia.
The order “sets an important precedent that animals can exercise their legal rights,” Christopher Berry, director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, told Efe on Monday.
This animal protection organization brought the case before an Ohio court in support of a lawsuit in Colombia against the immunocastration project to halt the growth of the hippo population in that Andean country.
“More broadly speaking, it’s the first concrete example of a US court authorizing animals to exercise a legal right in the animal’s own name,” such as the right to be free from cruelty and neglect, Berry detailed.
The attorney, however, explained that the judge’s mid-October ruling, “is limited to authorizing the hippos (in this case their defenders) to obtain evidence in support of their claim in Colombia.”
In the case of Latin America, Berry explained that Argentina and Colombia “are part of a growing trend of jurisdictions around the world that recognize that animals are legal entities with the ability to enforce certain legal rights in court.”
The Animal Legal Defense Fund submitted to the Ohio court the request to consider as evidence the considerations of two experts from that state in non-surgical sterilization, Elizabeth Berkeley and Richard Berlinski, in the lawsuit against the Government of Colombia against the plan “to kill about 100 hippos.”
Escobar, the mafia boss of the Medellín cartel, imported in 1981 from a zoo in the United States four hippos, three females and one male, to be part of the collection of exotic animals of his Hacienda Nápoles, which have now been breeding uncontrollably.
The plaintiffs in Colombia are the “community of hippos that live in the Magdalena River” in central Colombia, where the animals have the legitimacy to file lawsuits to protect their interests.
Law protects hippos
U.S. law allows any “interested person” in foreign litigation to petition a federal court for permission to take depositions in the United States.
According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, because the hippos—also known as the “cocaine hippos“—are plaintiffs in the Colombian litigation, they qualify as “interested persons” in the United States.
Stephen Wells, executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said the court’s order represents “critical milestone in the broader fight for animal status to recognize that animals have enforceable rights.”
“Animals have the right to be free from cruelty and exploitation,” he added.
The lawsuit in Colombia was filed in 2020 on behalf of the hippos by attorney Luis Domingo Gómez Maldonado “to prevent the animals from being killed,” the fund recalled.
While the lawsuit is ongoing, the regional environmental agency involved in addressing the hippo population announced that it had begun this month to provide a fraction of the animals with the contraceptive drug GonaCon.
According to the fund, it is unknown whether the Colombian government’s use of the drug is safe and effective, and how many hippos (Hippopotamus amphibius) it will kill.
The lawsuit seeks an order to provide a contraceptive called PZP (porcine zona pellucida), “given its historic success in hippos held in zoos.”
Berkeley and Berlinski’s testimony will be used “to bolster support for the PZP contraceptive to prevent hippos living in the Magdalena River from continuing to increase in population without sacrificing them,” the fund noted.
Currently, according to Colombian authorities, 80 hippos have been identified and are distributed among three population groups located in the Magdalena Medio region.
By 2050 there could be between 400 and 800 hippos (Hippopotamus amphibius) in Colombia if no action is taken, according to a study this year by Florida International University (FIU).
That takes into account an annual population growth rate of 7%, but if an 11% increase is considered, which is not unrealistic according to the university, there could be as many as 5,000.