Vanessa, a female hippopotamus, part of the Escobar herd in Colombia. Photo: Juancho Torres/Getty Images
The descendants of cocaine baron Pablo Escobar’s hippos in Colombia should have the same legal rights as people, a federal court in the US ruled this week.The ruling, by a judge at a federal court in Ohio, came in response to a lawsuit filed on behalf of the hippos by a charity, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), to make the hippos “interested persons,” in the ongoing case of whether to cull or sterilise the herd over concerns of environmental damage and public safety. The decision is thought to be the first time such legal status has been granted to animals.
Before being shot to death by police on a Medellin rooftop in 1993, Escobar lived in an extravagant narco-style compound called Hacienda Napoles complete with a football pitch, nightclub and a large zoo of exotic animals. After his death authorities removed most of the animals to zoos or private collections but left four hippos running free along the Magdalena River, where they thrived in Colombia’s year round wet climate and without any natural predators.Now numbering more than 100 creatures along the banks of the river, the situation according to Colombian officials has grown increasingly dangerous to both the river's ecology and the safety of nearby residents. Large herbivores, hippos produce huge amounts of waste and methane gas that can change the chemical composition of the river’s water and there are already signs of deadly algae blooms caused by their excrement in the Magdalena River. They also frequently choose violence when approached by humans, reflected in their status as the large animal that kills the most people in Africa each year. As such, Colombian authorities have suggested culling but, despite their fearsome reputation, the hippos are rather beloved in the Colombian community and killing the hippos has so far been ruled out by local authorities, who prefer efforts to sterilise the hippos to prevent the community from growing.
But hippo genitalia is very difficult to identify and remove and even hippo-experienced veterinarians are forced to drug the creatures and conduct invasive examinations in order to determine a hippo’s sex. And sterilising the hippo is even more complicated, driving the cost of taking a single hippo out of reproductive service to around $50,000 (about £36,000), assuming you can even safely catch the beasts, which can weigh upwards of 1,500 kg.The Animal Legal Defense Fund sued in federal court in the southern district of Ohio for the right to depose two experts in non-surgical castration in the ongoing legal fight. The court granted the hippos the same rights as humans, or “interested persons”, because they have a stake in the outcome of the proceedings and therefore can be represented through a legal proxy, such as the ALDF.“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,” said ALDF Executive Director Stephen Wells in a statement. “The court’s order authorising 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 recognise that animals have enforceable rights.”Christopher Berry, ALDF's managing attorney, told AFP on Thursday the district court order "will help the hippos in their lawsuit not to die – that's the immediate impact of it. It's the first concrete example of a US court authorising animals to exercise a legal right in the animal's own name.”