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Statement on Colombian Hippos Case

By Steven Wise

In the past week, some news outlets have reported that a U.S. federal court recognized hippos in Colombia as legal persons with rights. The NhRP has received numerous inquiries as to our legal assessment of this news. Below is a statement on the case by NhRP President Steven M. Wise.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) recently stated that “animals (were) recognized as legal persons for the first time in US court.” Those nonhuman animals are hippos living in Colombia. Under Colombian law they have an “unofficial agent” (“agente oficioso”) who can act on behalf of others during a judicial process, because they are unable to file a lawsuit on their own. This case is similar to the nine habeas corpus cases that the Nonhuman Rights Project had standing to file on behalf of imprisoned chimpanzees and an elephant in New York since 2013.

Alas, ALDF’s statement is not accurate if what they are saying is that hippos are now persons or have rights in the United States. However, if ALDF is correct, and the granting of a court order historically reserved for humans could be said to imply recognition of a nonhuman animal’s legal personhood, then the Nonhuman Rights Project has had its numerous nonhuman animal clients recognized as legal persons with standing in New York for the last eight years. Based upon the recent cases that have come down in two of Colombia’s Supreme Courts and its Constitutional Court, it is unlikely that hippos are persons in Colombia.

Here is what happened. Recently ALDF filed a motion pursuant to 28 U.S.C § 1782(a) in a US federal court to conduct a deposition of two Ohio wildlife experts with expertise in nonsurgical sterilization on behalf of a “community of hippopotamuses” brought into Colombia by drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. They, as does the NhRP, properly hope that the hippos won’t be killed.

ALDF’s Application claimed that hippos were “litigants” in Colombia and thus “interested persons” for the purposes of 28 U.S.C. §1782(a). But the issue under this statute is not whether a foreign entity is a US legal person, but whether the foreign entity is a “litigant” under the laws of the foreign country. The statute allows a US court to compel “testimony” or the production of a “document” for use in a foreign proceeding “upon the application of any interested person.” A Colombia lawyer simply claimed that hippos were persons in Colombia, but could not cite any cases that supported this claim. And the federal court simply stated the motion was “granted.” No one knows why the court ruled that way because it did not explain itself. There was no hearing, the defendant did not know the motion had been filed and could not oppose it, and ALDF claimed it was an “emergency” application.

Although ALDF’s motion argued that the Colombian Constitutional Court “has recognized that animals have standing … since they are entitled to the guarantees provided by their statutory or constitutional rights, and therefore allowed to redeem those rights as plaintiffs in litigation,” that statement is a major problem. Based upon a recent Colombian appellate court decision, it is likely that hippos do not have these rights in Colombia.

In January of 2020, Colombia’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, issued a 7-2 decision that denied legal personhood and rights to an Andean bear named Chucho and upheld the decisions of two branches of the Supreme Court who rejected the Civil Supreme Court Chamber decision that “(s)ince nonhuman animals are sentient beings capable of suffering, they must be holders of rights.”

The Labor Supreme Court Chamber stated that “the legal treatment of animals does not grant them personhood, but considers them beings with sensibility, which implies their tutelage, their protection and with it, the legal good of humans of mercy, then the duties of respect are assigned to us regarding animals.”

The Criminal Supreme Court Chamber “shares the criterion of the Labor Chamber, when it states that for the protection of ‘Chucho’ as a nonhuman being, another series of mechanisms exist in the legal system to avoid abuse, mistreatment, or possible extinction, such as those established in Law 1774 of 2016. Said law’s objective is to grant animals protection against any type of suffering and pain that comes directly or indirectly from the acts of people, without this meaning that animals should be considered as persons.”

The Constitutional Court later stated that the legal status of Colombian nonhuman animals was “varied and multiform,” but affirmed nonhuman animals’ status as “a particular kind of goods” (both the majority and the dissent discussed the NhRP’s argument to this Court that Chucho was a person: alas, the majority disagreed, while the dissent agreed).

The US court’s decision here is no different than if a Canadian attorney had filed an application under the same statute and argued that because spruce trees are “litigants” in a Canadian lawsuit (which they likely are not) they have the right to depose experts in the US as “interested persons.” If the US judge simply took the Canadian attorney at his potentially erroneous word, the US court would certainly not be finding that Canadian spruce trees were US legal persons nor, necessarily, Canadian legal persons.

We welcome when steps forward are made anywhere in the now global struggle for nonhuman animal personhood and rights that we began in New York in 2013. However, in our view, the claim that the US federal court recognized that hippos as legal persons is, alas, wrong. But if it is right, then it is what the NhRP began accomplishing in 2013.

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