Hippos Are Not People

If you are of a certain age, you may remember the drug lord Pablo Escobar. He founded and ran the Medellin Cartel in Colombia. His cartel monopolized the cocaine trade in the US during the 80s and early 90s. The profits from his illicit activities made him a billionaire which funded his extravagant lifestyle. Part of that lifestyle included a private zoo with four illegally imported hippopotamuses.

Escobar with his hippopotamuses

After his death, these four hippos “went native” and have reproduced. Their numbers have grown to 100 plus. As a non-native invasive species, they have caused issues for both native plants and animals. Scientists at the University of California-San Diego have documented their impact on water quality.

“This unique species has a big impact on its ecosystem in its native range in Africa, and we found that it has a similar impact when you import it into an entirely new continent with a completely different environment and cast of characters,” said UC San Diego Biological Sciences Professor Jonathan Shurin. “It’s clear that this effect might include negative consequences for water quality and water resources by fueling harmful algae and bacteria.”

There have been calls to have these hippos eradicated as a non-native invasive species. As you might surmise, this has upset some animal rights activists. They much prefer that the hippos be put on birth control or sterilized to control their reproduction. Attorneys in Colombia have gone to court there to save them from being killed. A quirk of Colombian law gives non-humans such as the hippos legal status to bring lawsuits.

Attorneys in Colombia wanted to depose two American wildlife scientists who are experts in non-surgical sterilization of animals. The courts in Colombia cannot compel them to provide depositions so animal rights activists went to court in the United States. US law allows “interested persons” in a foreign litigation to go to Federal court seeking permission to take depositions for use in their case. The key words are “interested persons”.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund brought suit in US District Court for the District of Southern Ohio on behalf of the hippos. However, the ALDF was not the plaintiff. The plaintiffs were “Community of Hippopotamuses Living in the Magdalena River”.

Applicant Community of Hippopotamuses Living in the Magdalena River (“Community”) hereby apply to this Court ex parte for an order pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1782 (“Section 1782”) granting the Application to serve Dr. Elizabeth
Berkeley and Dr. Richard Berlinski with the deposition subpoenas annexed to the Flint Decl. as Exhibits A and B.

Remarkably, US Magistrate Judge Karen Litkovitz granted the ex parte application by the hippos and authorized their attorneys to serve subpoenas compelling the depositions.

If the claims by the Animal Legal Defense Fund are correct, this marks the first time that non-humans were recognized as “legal persons.”

ALDF Executive Director Stephen Wells said:

“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,” says Animal Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Stephen Wells. “The court’s order authorizing 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 recognize that animals have enforceable rights.”

This is a dangerous ruling. While probably not precedential, it will be used by animal rights and anti-hunting groups in the future.

Will hunters be arrested for killing deer, doves, or any other animal? Will it lead to hunting being banned in its entirety?

Will meat packers be sued by cattle and swine to avoid being made into steaks and bacon?

What about fish? Will a suit be brought by the Community of Rainbow Trout Living in the Madison River to compel the testimony of fisheries biologists?

The list goes on. As I said, it is a dangerous ruling. To give standing and recognition to non-human species is opening a Pandora’s box. I don’t know if a magistrate judge’s ruling in an ex parte order is reviewable by the District Court Judge to whom the case was assigned. It should be and these subpoenas squashed. If the scientists in question wish to give a deposition in the case on their own, that is fine and their choice.