The National Sea Grant Law Center


  • Hippos Recognized As Legal Persons?
    Not So Fast

  • November 9th, 2021 — by Terra Bowling — Category: Miscellaneous

  • In October, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) filed a discovery motion in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio related to a Columbian case regarding population control for Columbia’s invasive hippopotamuses. The court granted the organization’s motion to depose two experts in the nonsurgical sterilization of wildlife, and ALDF declared that animals had been recognized as legal persons for the first time in the United States. This would be significant because legal persons typically have some constitutional rights and can sue and be sued. Although the headline appeared in multiple news outlets, it seems the ruling may not be as broad as it first appeared.

    The controversy surrounding the hippos began in the 1980s when Pablo Escobar, the notorious Columbian drug trafficker, imported four hippos to his Columbian estate. After Escobar’s death in 1993, the Columbian government attempted to rehome most of the exotic animals he had accumulated, but hippo transport proved too big of a challenge, so the animals were allowed to roam the Escobar property. Several hippos escaped to the Magdalena River basin, and the hippo population rapidly expanded, becoming the largest invasive species in the world. Scientists predict the country’s hippo population could reach 1,400 in 2040.

    As with other invasive species, the hippos have negatively impacted their new environment. The hippos consume grass and take up habitat inhabited by large native mammals, such as capybaras and Antillean manatees. Nutrients in the hippos’ feces fueled toxic algal blooms in lakes, killing off aquatic species. Farmers and ranchers have had run-ins with the aggressive animals.

    The Columbian government has attempted to control the growth of the hippo population through lethal means and sterilization. In response, a lawsuit challenging the program was filed in Columbia with the hippos listed as the plaintiffs—legally possible in Columbia where animals have standing to bring lawsuits to protect their interests. Back in the U.S., attorneys assisting with the Columbian case filed a motion in federal court under 28 U.S.C. § 1782 to obtain the testimony of two U.S. experts on wildlife sterilization methods.

    Under 28 U.S.C. § 1782, an “interested person” may pursue an order from a federal court to allow discovery for a foreign proceeding. ALDF claimed that the court’s grant of the motion meant that it recognized the hippos as “interested persons” because the hippos were listed as plaintiffs. However, the court did not make a finding that the hippos were “interested persons” under the statute. The court simply signed the order authorizing the plaintiffs to obtain testimony from the two experts. Notwithstanding the headlines, hippos (and animals) have not been declared to be people under U.S. law.

  • Terra Bowling
    Senior Research Counsel

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