"The Colombian legal system can't compel someone in the U.S. to provide testimony or to produce documents, but we have this federal law that allows interested persons in Colombia to go to the U.S. and obtain that ability to obtain documents and testimony." Christopher Berry, the attorney overseeing the U.S. case who also serves as managing director at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said. "So we applied for the hippos' rights to compel their testimony in order to support the Colombian litigation, and now the [U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio] has granted that application, recognizing that the hippos are interested persons."
This may seem like a minor and incremental step in the hippos' court proceedings. But the implications of this decision could be huge. In granting this application, the district court recognized animals as legal persons for the first time in U.S. history.
"It's obvious that animals actually do have legal rights, for example, the right not to be cruelly abused or killed ... but a legal right is only as valuable as one's right to enforce that legal right," said Berry. "The legal system doesn't ... have precedent for animals' interests directly appearing in court. There's no precedent for animals having a legal standing to enforce their own rights."
The precedent could be an important step for other cases that hinge on animals having legal personhood, such as a lawsuit filed by the Florida-based animal civil rights organization Nonhuman Rights Project on behalf of an elephant at the Bronx Zoo in New York.
Pablo Escobar's hippos have a lawyer. And a good one at that. In a U.S. first, a court recognized the animals as legal persons. That could be the hippos' salvation in the ongoing fight about what to do with one of the world's most rotund and dangerous invasive species.