Hippos Recognized as People in American Court: It’s a First for Animals!

Hippos Recognized as People in American Court: It’s a First for Animals!

In a huge victory for animals, a U.S. federal court has recognized animals as legal persons for the first time!

The first animals to be so recognized are the so-called “Escobar Hippos.” In the 1980s, Colombian drug trafficker Pablo Escobar imported four hippos to his estate in Colombia. Following Escobar’s death, the hippos were set free, and their population has been growing ever since. 

Recently, the Colombian government began talking about possibly killing the hippos. Activists have pushed back and In Defense of Animals also contributed directly to this fight by publishing an action alert urging Colombia to pursue a nonlethal solution which 11,500 of you signed! The recent court ruling in the United States acknowledging the Escobar hippos as persons stems from this fight over their future. 

Last year a lawsuit was filed by an attorney in Colombia on behalf of the hippos to save them from being killed, in addition to seeking the use of the contraceptive drug PZP. The Animal Legal Defense Fund later filed an application to allow expert testimony from two Ohio-based wildlife experts familiar with nonsurgical sterilization on behalf of the hippos.

Thanks to a federal law that allows parties from other countries to get testimony in the U.S. that can be used in court to support their cases, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio granted that application, recognizing that as the plaintiffs in the lawsuit the hippos are, in fact, “interested persons” because they have a (very) vested stake in the outcome.

This month the Colombian government also began administering doses of the contraceptive GonaCon that were donated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While it isn’t known how safe or effective this will be, or if the government still plans to kill any hippos, the lawsuit in Colombia is ongoing and the ruling here is a precedent-setting victory for animals that will hopefully support further legal action seeking to grant them legal personhood.

Achieving personhood for animals has been a key goal of people fighting on behalf of the interests of animals for decades. Some animals do, already, have a few very basic rights. For example, all 50 states have felony provisions against animal cruelty toward at least a few species. But personhood is the necessary condition for animals’ interests directly appearing in court. This recent court order means we have entered a new legal era for animals in the United States. 

Now that the first victory has been won, we must not relent but must double down to ensure this victory is only the first of many. 

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