Legal Personhood and Cocaine Hippos: Animals as “Interested Persons” and Their Rights in Court

Douglas Harman, MJLST Staffer

On October 15, 2021, a federal magistrate judge ruled that a group of hippos in Colombia can be recognized as “interested persons” per federal statute for the purposes of deposing two Ohio Wildlife experts. These hippos are the descendants of hippos illegally imported to Colombia by drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. When Escobar was killed, the hippos were not relocated and were left to their own devices in Colombia. Since then, the hippos have multiplied and present significant environmental challenges. The issue in the US arose from litigation in Colombia concerning the fate of the hippos, which resulted in a request to depose the two Ohio experts. These hippos will be referred to as the “cocaine hippos” because that seems to be the term most commonly associated with them (and, quite frankly, it’s amusing).

This decision, though hailed by animal rights groups as groundbreaking, is likely more a technicality than a guiding precedent. Specifically, the ruling comes because Colombia treats animals as “sentient beings” with certain rights. Because the suit by the hippos is permitted in Colombia, US law treats the hippos as “interested persons” for the purposes of deposing US experts on ethical sterilization methods. Regardless of the breadth or technicality of the decision in question, it nonetheless represents a significant step to affix the title of “person” to a non-homosapien, and it has not happened in a US court before, despite repeated efforts by animal rights organizations. However, other countries do recognize various degrees of animal sentience.

The Legal Concept of Non-Human “Personhood”

The issue of whether animals should be considered “persons” has a variety of scientific, psychological, and philosophical elements. This blog post is not here to debate whether animals should be considered persons in terms of political theory or philosophy; plenty of ink has been spent in that pursuit elsewhere. This discussion focuses on how non-persons may receive limited rights to sue in court and perform certain legal functions as if they were persons, like the deposition of experts in the matter of the cocaine hippos.

 The implications of animal consciousness are relevant because growing understanding of animal cognition and consciousness has informed a discussion of whether animals, and other non-humans like trees or natural areas, should be allowed to have their own rights vindicated in court. That is to say, there are a number of ongoing legal discussions about obligations owed to non-humans that governments are obligated to respect, and how those rights are allowed to be vindicated in court. It is this narrower, legal version of non-human “personhood” that was granted to Colombia’s cocaine hippos in the present action.

History of Non-Human “Personhood” Debate in the US

Although the court ruling in the cocaine hippos matter is the first time a US court has attached “person” status to an animal, it is not the first time the issue has been discussed. Attempts to give animals legal status and treat them as “persons” in certain legal areas developed from the animal rights movement, which has a long history in the US and Great Britain. In the last several years, several courts have referred to animal legal rights in the context of personhood, albeit rather obliquely at times. One of the biggest ongoing debates concerns the rights of Happy the Elephant; animal rights activists are pursuing a writ of habeas corpus for Happy, arguing she deserves to be treated as a person in the eyes of the law.

Non-human personhood is not without precedent. Courts have allowed corporations to be considered “artificial persons” in limited circumstances in court since the 1600s. Jurisprudence has since developed in the United States towards increasing “personhood” of corporations, referring to a railroad as a person for the purposes of the 14th amendment in 1886. Today corporations have near-total personhood, including the right to make religious objections to laws and practice free speech.

There is also some precedent for inanimate objects holding “personhood” status under the law. Every law student (and a great many other Americans, it is to be imagined) have discussed or at least heard of the Tree that Owns Itself (while it almost certainly does not own itself as a technical matter, it certainly does in the public mind and in the official statements of the local government). Additionally, Justice William O. Douglas in his dissent in Sierra Club v. Morton argued that standing doctrine should be amended to allow organizations to sue on behalf of inanimate things, including land, rivers, trees, etc. This opinion essentially lays out an idea of legal personhood for inanimate objects, and would presumably also extend with relative ease to animals.

As a factual matter, the reality of non-human personhood, while remarkably developed for corporations in the United States, has relatively little real applications to animals today. This is one of the main reasons that the attachment of the “interested persons” label to the Colombian hippos felt significant to many in the animal rights movement.

Recognition of Non-Human “Personhood” in Other Countries

While animals have not commonly been granted legal rights in the United States, they do in many other countries. Spain recognized animals as “sentient beings” and have greater standing than inanimate objects. In doing so, it joined about 32 other countries that do the same, including France, the U.K., the Netherlands, Sweden, New Zealand, and Tanzania. South Korea is doing something similar in granting animals legal status.

South America is also moving on the front on non-human rights. In 2014, a court in Argentina recognized the basic rights of Sandra the Orangutan, and agreed that she was being detained illegally in the Buenos Aires Zoo. Additionally, Colombia, the state in which the cocaine hippos case originates, has vested portions of the Amazon Rainforest with legal rights, and, as mentioned, recognizes animal sentience and limited legal rights.

What This Means for Colombia’s Cocaine Hippos (and Other Animals)

In the immediate term, the magistrate judge’s recognition of the cocaine hippos as “interested persons” has allowed for the expert deposition sought by the Colombian lawyers advocating on the hippos’ behalf. Effort is now under way to chemically sterilize the hippos, rather than cull or surgically castrate them.

More broadly, there appears to be more references to the inherent rights of animals in American jurisprudence, rather than simply their function as property. The act of classifying the hippos as “interested persons” did not rock the legal boat (in fact, the magistrate judge remains quite well regarded by her colleagues). Those interested in animal rights will doubtless be heartened by increased use of personhood and rights language used with respect to animals. Hopefully, the treatment of Pablo Escobar’s rogue cocaine hippos in US court is indicative of progressive trend in the law’s treatment of animals.