Truly transformational change for animals will come when the legal status of animals is no longer property. I long to see case law shifting in that direction. Despite headlines and online chatter, I don’t believe the recent court order about Pablo Escobar’s hippos gets us much closer.
When I began seeing the headlines about the hippos being granted legal person status by a US court in just about every newspaper and magazine, on social media and buzzing around the Veganverse, I shuddered a bit. I’ve been down this road before with these ebullient animal stories. I always hope for the best and end up with a big box of nothing.
So, how does this extraordinary story begin?
Pablo Escobar, once a kingpin of the global drug trade emanating from Colombia, had hippos on his estate along the Magdalena River. These hippos eventually escaped and have now colonised parts of the river. The Magdalena River is an incredible place. It’s rich in biodiversity and home to many people, including indigenous groups. See Wade Davis’ book about this magnificent place and films. Quite a few interesting interviews with Davis are available online. Learn about the potential impact of some megafauna returning to an ecosystem here.
Forward to recent times and the Colombian government intends to cull the hippos
I know; you’re surprised. A lawsuit filed in federal court in Ohio is attempting to restrain this slaughter. There’s also a lawsuit filed in the Colombian court. Under Colombian law, animals can sue! I believe that particular of Colombian law is the more interesting story, but it’s mentioned in passing, preferring instead to focus on a half-baked US story instead. Classic.
The US lawsuit is captioned Community of Hippopotamuses Living in the Magdalena River, Applicant, To Issue Subpoenas For The Taking of Depositions Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §1782, No. 1:21-mc-00023-TSB-KLL (S.D. Ohio).
I scoured the Internet for any of the original papers on this case because nothing beats learning from the source. None of the news media linked to anything, which isn’t unusual and it’s a bad habit of impoverished journalism. I’m used to not finding source links in articles. It seems most articles spring from a press release somewhere. They get picked up by the first media outlet and then the rest just copy with a few changes. The source for this news is the press release by Animal Legal Defense Fund (“ALDF”) and it too doesn’t contain any links to the court materials. Disappointing.
I’ll summarise the legal stuff in the most straightforward manner possible
The lawyers in the US, led by the ALDF, asked the US court to admit the testimony of two experts residing in Ohio. ALDF wants the experts to testify on behalf of the hippos about non-lethal methods to control animal populations. The problem is the hippos aren’t part of the US litigation and animals can’t sue. So, unless there’s an exception, the experts wouldn’t be allowed to testify. There’s a rule in US federal law allowing some persons to participate if they qualify as “interested persons”.
So, the ALDF applied to qualify the hippos as interested persons. Despite the hippos not being recognised as persons under US laws, ALDF argued the hippos should be recognised as “interested persons” in this case. Why? Because Colombian law allows animals to sue and the hippos are part of the Colombian lawsuit.
ALDF applied directly to the court. The legal term is ex parte, which means the other parties in the lawsuit didn’t get notice of the application and didn’t get to argue against it. This is an important detail. The other parties could ask to have this decision set aside so they can set forth their views.
The Ohio court didn’t deliberate about this application or give any explanations that would be considered interpretation of the law. The court simply said okay in an order allowing ALDF to bring the expert testimony into court.
Importantly, the court did not say hippos are persons under the law. That’s because a person under US laws is a defined term. A legal person is generally a natural person, or a corporate entity, a trust, an estate of a deceased person, other types of companies such as a partnership, a charitable organisation or an association, and things of that nature. You can roughly think about it as either natural people or legal entities. Nowhere are animals given legal personhood in the US either at the state or federal level.
ALDF thinks differently
You’ll see ALDF’s reasoning in their press release. It’s likely they’ll argue granting this order furthers the argument for legal personhood. Perhaps it does, but I’m sceptical. In this case, all we have is a simple order. If there had been a full judgment by the court, complete with legal reasoning, then I might think differently. You may also want to read this analysis in a legal blog and this one. Both those blog entries are excellent and will give you a fuller legal analysis.
Still, one can’t fault ALDF for trying and it’ll be interesting to see how far and in what form they’ll take this.
Property and animals
Property status of all animals, domestic, farm or wild, under the law is something we touch on in our book, Think Like a Vegan. It’s a fundamental element of how we’re able to perpetuate speciesism and misguided anthropocentrism, so the concept had to be part of our primer. There’s a new book by Maneesha Deckha called Animals as Legal Beings: Contesting Antrhopocentric Legal Orders.
Her work takes the property status critique even further than Francione’s Animals, Property and the Law, which is a prerequisite to Deckha’s work, as she draws from it. Deckha proposes a legal standard other than legal personhood. It’s a fascinating and thought-provoking work. While it is academic, Deckha manage to set out her ideas in an accessible manner. I highly recommend it.
What can we do?
We don’t need to wait for systemic change to push for change or change ourselves. When we choose to become vegan we choose to acknowledge animals are owed fair treatment, like everyone else. Veganism is a baseline ethical choice for respecting animals’ basic right to be free from objectification and exploitation. Simultaneously, veganism also comprehensively extends our ethical concern to people in terms of social justice and climate change.