Legislative Action Center

No, A U.S. Federal District Court Did Not Classify Hippos as Legal Persons
November 4, 2021 by AKC Government Relations

Over the past few weeks, news stories reported a startling development in the ongoing policy debates about how animals should be classified under the law: That a U.S. federal district court ruled that some hippos that are the subject of an international case were persons under the law.  Guess what:  Those headlines were sourced from an advocacy blog published by the animal rights group Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), which seriously misconstrued the nature of the court’s action.   

Here’s the story:  In the 1980s, notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar smuggled four hippos into Colombia to be part of his personal menagerie of exotic animals.   When Escobar died in 1993, the hippos were left on their own and thrived along the Magdalena River north of Bogotá, where they have no natural predators.  Today, the current population is estimated to be at least 100 hippos, and is the biggest “bloat” of hippos outside of their native Africa. 

Colombian officials considered culling the destructive animals, but an animal rights lawyer filed suit to prevent their being killed.  Colombian courts characterize animals as “sentient beings” entitled to some rights.  Colombian authorities have since said that, instead of culling the herd, they will use a chemical contraceptive, GonaCon, to ensure the herd can no longer proliferate. GonaCon was developed by the USDA to be used on horses and deer, and dozens of doses were donated by the United States for use on the hippos.  Now, because GonaCon has not been tested on the species, the lawyer who originally sued to stop the culling of the hippos is seeking to have them treated with a contraceptive that has already been used on the species.   

This is where the U.S. Federal District Court for the Southern District of Ohio comes in.  A U.S. law, 28 USC § 1782, allows for an “interested person” to seek an order from a federal court allowing discovery to be taken in support of a foreign proceeding.  Two lawyers, including one for ALDF, applied for an order to compel two U.S. witnesses knowledgeable about ways to control animal populations using non-lethal methods to testify in the case pending in Colombia. 

In its application, ALDF argued that because Colombian law permits animals to sue, the hippos were parties to a foreign lawsuit, and on the basis of that Colombian law—not American law—the animals could be considered “interested persons” for the limited purpose of discovery in a foreign case under §1782. 

Sensationalized headlines reporting the court’s action as a milestone for the animal rights movement misconstrued the nature of the judicial procedure.  In granting the application to compel the testimony of the two American witnesses, all the court did was sign an order to aid the Colombian litigation for the privileges the hippos enjoy under Colombian law.  While certainly novel under the facts of the case and potentially persuasive to other U.S. federal courts in future cases, the order currently has limited applicability to the U.S. federal court district where it was signed.  Most significantly, the court made no substantive findings of law, including whether hippos are “legal persons”. 

As the leader on promoting the preservation and development of purebred dogs and on defending the rights of their breeders and owners, the American Kennel Club (AKC) remains concerned with the efforts of animal rights groups to change the traditional legal classification of animals as property.  For centuries, owners have been able to protect the dogs they love because lawmakers and the courts have legally treated animals—whether livestock or pets—as property.  This traditional treatment gives owners opportunities to decide the best ways to keep their dogs and the reasons for which they keep them, whether as pets, as competition dogs, or as part of a responsible breeding program.  By contrast, as their names imply, animal rights groups seek to change that traditional legal treatment.  Their ultimate goal is for animals to be given legal rights, just the same as people. Not only would this ultimately end owners’ legal rights in their pets and their ability to make appropriate care decisions for them; it would also leave an unknown legal system in its wake that would put the care of all animals in jeopardy.  To protect the wellbeing of dogs and the rights and responsibilities of dog owners, AKC is committed to protecting the traditional legal classification of animals as property under American law. 

To learn more about this issue, head over the Legal Status of Animals key issue page on the AKC Government Relations Legislative Action Center

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