Shippos are a part of Pablo Escobar’s legacy that no one is quick to claim. In the early 1980s, drug lord El Patrón illegally imported four hippos to decorate the private menagerie of his ranch in Colombia, Hacienda Napoles. But after his death on December 2, 1993, the Colombian authorities decided that it would be too expensive to take care of them. They have simply abandoned them to their fate.
Nature being generous, the herd grew to reach the respectable size of 80 heads: it is now the largest colony of hippos outside Africa. But these animals eventually became invasive. Not content with frolicking on the ranch, they have moved as they please and represent a double threat to the environment – their droppings alter the chemistry and oxygen levels of waterways – and populations.
Beneath his good-natured demeanor, this pachyderm is anything but peaceful: he jealously defends his territory and, on occasion, can kill humans – 500 deaths per year, five times more than the lion. To the point that a study published in January by the scientific journal Biological Conservation recommended the slaughter of the herd of “Don Pablo”, one of Pablo Escobar’s many nicknames.
Domingo Gómez Maldonado, a Colombian lawyer and animal advocate, does not hear it that way. In July, he lodged an appeal with the Colombian courts to obtain their pardon. Colombia recognizes certain animal rights: for the Colombian courts, they are “sentient beings”, as the lawyer Macarena Montes Franceschini recalled in an article in the spring. Journal of Animal Ethics.
In 2018, a Colombian court even granted, in a landmark decision, legal entity status to part of the Amazon rainforest, forcing the Colombian government to end deforestation in the region.
The Colombian authorities have therefore changed their minds and opted for a gentler solution: sterilization. After having castrated eleven cattle in the traditional way, Cornare – the regional environmental protection organization leading the project – chose another method, chemical sterilization, an approach financially and technically supported by the United States. Nonetheless, the organization admits it is groping: “The process remains complex, as experts suggest giving three doses, based on studies and comparisons made with other large animals, such as horses. “
An Act to allow the claim of an American deposition
Since mid-October, more than twenty of these mammals have received darts injecting them with GonaCon, a contraceptive vaccine developed by the US Department of Agriculture. This is the reason why the association Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) seized the American justice in application of Section 1782 of Title 28 of the United States Code. This federal law allows “An interested person” to claim a US deposition in a foreign dispute.
In this case, it was a question of collecting, on behalf of the “Community of hippos living in the Magdalena river”, the opinion of Drs Elizabeth Berkeley and Richard Berlinski. These two American veterinarians from the NGO Animal Balance, specializing in sterilization, have been asked to support Domingo Gómez Maldonado’s appeal against the use of GonaCon. This contraceptive was developed to fight against the proliferation of the Colombian white tailed deer (named after the Columbia River, in the United States) before being used successfully on other species… But it has not been tested on Hippopotamus amphibius.
Instead, the two vets recommend the use of PZP, a contraceptive used successfully in hippos in zoos. “It is not known whether the use of [GonaCon] by the Colombian government will be safe and efficient, and it is also unclear how many hippos the government still intends to kill ”, wrote the ALDF in a statement.
Animal rights in the United States
In his ordinance of October 15, Judge Karen Litkovitz of the Ohio Federal Court granted the NGO’s request. This is the first real-life example of a US court allowing animals to exercise a legal right on their own behalf. “It is a crucial step in the fight (…) to recognize that animals have enforceable rights ”, said Stephen Wells, executive director of the ALDF.
“This judgment will have no effect in Colombia, because it is only valid on the territory [américain]. It will be the Colombian authorities who will decide the fate of the hippos and not the American authorities ”, says Camilo Burbano Cifuentes, professor of criminal law at the Externado University of Colombia, quoted by the Guardian.
Colombia and the United States are not the only ones to recognize animal rights. In Europe, France, but also Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Portugal have already amended their civil code to recognize the living and sensitive nature of animals.
In France, noting that animal protection is not politically embodied in France, the deputy (La République en Marche) Loïc Dombreval issued, in June 2020, a report on the “Welfare of pets and equines”, in which he suggests creating a sort of defender of rights or a secretary of state dedicated to the animal condition, or even an interministerial delegate.
In Spain, a court in Madrid has taken a step in this direction. Considering that animals are “Sentient beings” and no longer simple “Goods”, a judge granted shared custody of a dog to two members of a separated couple, the judge having considered that both are “co-responsible” and “cogardiens” of the animal, reports the Spanish channel RTVE.es.
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American justice grants rights to Pablo Escobar’s hippos