Moving from Property to Personhood: Hippos as Plaintiffs in U.S. Federal Court

Amanda Thompson

In the United States legal system, animals have traditionally been viewed as property, lacking legal rights and the ability to redress injustices in court. As evidenced through philosophy, religion, and history, humans have viewed animals as objects that exist solely for their use and benefit. Yet, animals, like humans, are intelligent, sentient creatures with the capacity to feel emotions like pain and suffering. The United States should adapt with a progressing world and recognize animals as legal persons, rather than property. 

Personhood is a “legal designation indicating that an entity has the capacity for rights or responsibilities.”[1]Legal personhood has been granted beyond humans to other entities such as corporations, ships, and government entities where lawyers are able to argue on their behalf.[2] As society progressed, groups such as children, enslaved individuals, and women were reclassified from legal “property” to legal “persons.”[3] Globally, entities such as national parks, rivers, plants, and trees are considered legal persons. [4] Environmental advocates argue that natural objects should have legal rights that are independent of the rights of humans.[5] Elevating elements of nature to legal persons gives advocates the ability to protect ecological wellbeing and biodiversity from exploitation. If natural entities such as trees and rivers are named as legal persons, then animals should be afforded the same—or even greater—legal protection. 

A recent federal district court case involving descendants of hippos once owned by Pablo Escobar is a significant victory for the legal personhood of animals. After Escobar’s death, the Colombian government left his four hippos on his property because it was unable to transport them to a suitable environment.[6] The hippos subsequently escaped, relocated to the Magdalena River, and reproduced at a rate so rapid that some ecologists consider it to be unsustainable.[7] The Colombian government planned to slaughter 100 of these hippos due to damage to the local ecosystem and hippo attacks on local fisherman.[8] The Animal Legal Defense Fund (“ALDF”) sued the Colombian government on behalf of the community of hippos living in Magdalena River in an effort to save the hippos from execution.[9] ALDF sought an order to provide a contraceptive called porcine zona pellucida (“PZP”) to the hippos as a non-lethal method of preventing them from overpopulating.[10]

In Colombia, animals have standing to bring lawsuits to protect their interests.[11] ALDF wanted to depose two wildlife experts with knowledge in nonsurgical sterilization who reside in Ohio, so they filed an application pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1782.[12] The statute allows anyone who is an “interested person” in a foreign litigation to request permission from a federal court to take depositions in the United States in support of their foreign case.[13] The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that someone who is a party to a foreign case “no doubt” qualifies as an “interested person” under this statute.[14] As a result, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio held that the hippos were “interested persons” in this case, recognizing animals as legal persons for the first time in a federal court [15] and signaling a potential pathway for animals to get their paws through a courtroom door. 


[1] Rachel Fobar, A Person or a Thing? Inside the Fight for Animal Personhood, Nat’l Geographic (Aug. 4, 2021), https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/inside-the-ongoing-fight-for-happys-freedom.

[2] Stephen I. Burr, Toward Legal Rights for Animals, 4 Envtl. Affairs 205, 228 (1975).

[3] Tess Vickery, A Taxonomy of Class Actions for Animals in the United States, 26 Animal L. 41, 44 (2020).

[4] Gwendolyn J. Gordon, Environmental Personhood, 43 Columbia Journal of Envtl. Law 49, 50–52 (2018) (emphasizing the advancements made in the environmental personhood in locations as varied as Bolivia, Ecuador, India, and New Zealand).

[5] Christopher D. Stone, Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects (1972); see also Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727, 742 (1972) (Douglas, J., dissenting) (“The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it. Those people who have a meaningful relation to that body of water – whether it be a fisherman, a canoeist, a zoologist, or a logger – must be able to speak for the values which the river represents and which are threatened with destruction.”).

[6] Animals Recognized as Legal Persons for the First Time in U.S. Court, Animal Legal Def. Fund (Oct. 20, 2021), https://aldf.org/article/animals-recognized-as-legal-persons-for-the-first-time-in-u-s-court/.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Community of Hippopotamuses Living in the Magdalena River v. Ministerio De Ambiente y Desarrollo Sostenible et al., No. 1:21mc23 (S.D. Ohio, Oct. 15, 2021).

[10] Ex Parte Application of Community of Hippopotamuses Living in the Magdalena River for an Order Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1782 to Conduct Discovery for Use in Foreign Proceedings, 1, No. 1:21mc23 (S.D. Ohio, Oct. 15, 2021).

[11] Animals Recognized as Legal Persons for the First Time in U.S. Courtsupra note 6.

[12] See generally Ex Parte Application of Community of Hippopotamuses Living in the Magdalena River for an Order Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1782 to Conduct Discovery for Use in Foreign Proceedings No. 1:21mc23 (S.D. Ohio, Oct. 15, 2021).

[13] Animals Recognized as Legal Persons for the First Time in U.S. Courtsupra note 6.

[14] Id.

[15] Order Granting Ex Parte Application of Community of Hippopotamuses Living in the Magdalena River for an Order Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1782 to Conduct Discovery for Use in Foreign Proceedings, No. 1:21mc23 (S.D. Ohio, Oct. 15, 2021).

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