- Does this mean the hippos now have to pay U.S. taxes?
If you enjoyed the story we published in January about Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s cocaine hippos, we have good news for you. The animals’ saga continues with a groundbreaking court ruling.
The roughly 80 hippos, all descendants of the four beasts the infamous drug lord bought for his illegal personal zoo, have been declared people. On October 15, the District Court for the Southern district of Ohio recognized the cocaine hippos as legal persons in the U.S.
This is the first time a U.S. court has legally considered non-human creatures to be people. We guess it’s true when they say there’s a first time for everything.
‘A Critical Milestone’
The ruling came after the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) filed an application on behalf of the plaintiffs in a Colombian lawsuit against the country’s government. In this case, the plaintiffs were the “community of hippopotamuses living in the Magdalena River.”
The ALDF wants to support the foreign lawsuit, which aims to prevent the Colombian government from killing the hippos. According to U.S. law, an “interested person” in a foreign litigation can request permission from a federal court to take depositions in the U.S. in support of their foreign case.
According to the ALDF’s view, the hippos counted as “interested persons” in this case. The courts apparently agreed.
“The court’s order authorizing the hippos to exercise their legal right to obtain information in the U.S. is a critical milestone in the broader animal status fight to recognize that animals have enforceable rights,” said ALFD executive director Stephen Wells.
“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,” he added.
Christopher Berry, managing director of the ALDF and the attorney overseeing the hippos’ case in the U.S., said that it was “obvious” animals have rights. But whether people respect those rights is another story.
“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,” Berry told Gizmodo.
“We applied for the hippos’ rights to compel their testimony in order to support the Colombian litigation, and now the [U.S. court] has granted that application, recognizing that the hippos are interested persons,” he added.
The Colombian lawsuit isn’t just about killing the hippos, though. It also seeks to stop the Colombian government to stop the current plant to sterilize them.
Scientists with the Regional Autonomous Corporation of the Negro and Nare River Basins (CORNARE) have started sterilizing the hippos with a vaccine called ConaGon. The USDA developed ConaGon in the early 1990s as a contraceptive for deer.
The USDA says ConaGon works on both male and female animals. It stimulates the production of antibodies that interfere with sex hormones.
As a result, the animals’ sexual activity decreases for several years and they won’t reproduce. In theory.
According to ALDF, there are no guarantees ConaGon will be safe or effective on hippos.
“The hippos’ lawsuit seeks an order to provide a contraceptive called porcine zona pellucida (PZP), given its historical success in hippos held in zoos,” the ALDF said.
PZP is also recommended by an Animal Balance international committee, an organization that focuses on sterilizing animals.
The U.S. court ruling could have wide-ranging impacts on animal rights. Since we now have precedent for legally treating animals as people, the decision could change the landscape of animal abuse lawsuits.
For example, a New York lawsuit seeks to free an elephant called Happy from the Bronx Zoo. According to this suit, Happy isn’t happy at the zoo and should receive bodily autonomy.
In Colombia, though, the now-legally-people cocaine hippos are causing some undeniable issues. The massive creatures eat immense amounts of plants, which is threatening the food supply of native animals.
And since they’re big, they take big poops. The hippos’ waste has changed the chemistry and oxygen levels in the rivers they live in, leading to algae blooms.
Despite their docile looks, hippos are also notoriously violent animals. They have attacked several locals, including one attack in May 2020 that seriously injured one man.
And that’s just with 80 hippos around. According to one study, there could be as many as 1,400 hippos in Colombia by 2030.
Someone clearly needs to do something about the situation. Oh wait, we got it — since the hippos are now people, Colombia can just sue them for the damages.
That’ll show them.