VSORPORATIONS HAVE had enjoyed legal personality since the 19th century. Now, it seems, they have company. A dispute over the fate of hippos in Colombia resulted in an Ohio Federal Court ruling that, for the first time in U.S. law, recognizes animals as people.
This should be good news for the 100+ hippos in the Magdalena River in Colombia. They are the offspring of four hippos smuggled into the country by drug lord Pablo Escobar. After Escobar died in a shootout with the police in 1993, other specimens from his exotic menagerie – ostriches, zebras, flamingos – found new homes in zoos. But the hippos settled in the mud of the Madeleine and began to reproduce.
Excess hippos have blanketed the lakes with algae and could displace endangered otters, manatees and turtles. Hippos also began to roam the villages, a potential danger to humans. Last year, the government considered a cull, prompting a Colombian lawyer to champion the case. Hippos, according to his lawsuit, enjoy protection under Colombian law and should not be killed.
Ohio Federal Judge Karen Litkovitz is not deciding the fate of the hippos. But on October 15, she agreed with the Animal Legal Defense Fund that hippos are “interested persons” under a law allowing foreign litigants to gather evidence in America that could support their claims. Experts in non-surgical sterilization will be tabled for their views on PZP, a contraceptive that could spare hippos while stopping their growth.
America is not the first country to consider animals as legal persons. An Indian court cited the constitution to ban a bullfighting festival in 2014. A judge in Argentina ruled that Sandra, an orangutan, was a non-human person eligible for a better environment than her concrete enclosure at a zoo in Buenos Areas; she is now basking in a sanctuary in Florida. In 2020, a court in Islamabad, faced with cases involving stray dogs, an elephant and a bear, recognized the “right of every animal … to live in an environment that meets its behavioral, social and physiological needs. “.
Judge Litkovitz’s decision is not phrased in such sweeping terms. It remains to be seen whether other US courts will follow his lead in cases such as that of Happy, an elephant at the Bronx Zoo who has shown signs of self-awareness and misery. In 2022, New York’s highest court will consider whether the habeas corpus (protection against unjust imprisonment) order applies to Happy.
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the title “Wallow on”