By Matt Reese
There was a stretch where the Reese children were really into a television show called Secrets of the Zoo. For the most part, I really enjoyed watching the reality show covering the daily trials of the impressive veterinarian staff at the Columbus Zoo. It included plenty of valuable, educational information in a way the kids found to be entertaining.
As we binge watched the show, though, an underlying theme started to bother me. I could not quite put my finger on it at first, but it gradually started to dawn on me that the general premise of the show elevated the status of animals to a level approaching (or exceeding) human status. Now, I should point out, that even once this did occur to me, we continued to watch the show due to its value, but we also had a number of discussions about the hierarchy of things and my concerns with some of the themes of the show.
The truth is, from beloved pets at home, to endless movies humanizing animals and a pet food/care industry training consumers to love their animals more than their children, there is plenty of societal push to elevate animals to priority levels equal to or above humans. Whether complicit in these various efforts or not, animal rights advocates certainly do not shy away from facilitating this façade for its help in boosting their bottom lines and furthering their anti-animal agriculture agendas.
The was a bit of global animal rights celebration in October on this front with an odd Ohio connection after the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) claimed the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio recognized animals as legal persons for the first time in the United States. This claim is a stretch (at best) in a strange legal dispute based in Columbia involving hippopotamuses formerly owned by a deceased drug lord.
Back in the 1980s, Colombian drug trafficker Pablo Escobar illegally purchased four non-native hippos for his private zoo. After Escobar died, the Colombian government left the hippos on his property. Eventually, the hippos escaped the property into the wild where they have been reproducing since. Now the Columbian government is trying to address the problem in a way animal rights advocates are opposing.
A lawsuit in Colombia was filed on behalf of the hippos on July 31, 2020, to save the animals from being killed. While the lawsuit is ongoing, the regional environmental agency involved in addressing the hippo population announced it had started to provide some of the animals with the contraceptive drug GonaCon. According to ALDF, the hippos’ lawsuit seeks an order to provide a contraceptive called PZP (porcine zona pellucida), given its historical success in hippos held in zoos and its recommendation by an International Advisory Committee assembled by Animal Balance, an international organization that focuses on sterilization of animals.
Attorney and research specialist for Ohio State University Agriculture and Resource Law Jeffrey K. Lewis recently wrote the following for the Ohio Agricultural Law Blog outlining the strange case:
A recent order issued by a federal district court in Ohio allows an attorney for Colombian Hippopotamuses to take the testimony of two expert witnesses residing in Ohio.
According to U.S. law, a witness may be compelled to give testimony in a foreign lawsuit if an “interested person” applies to a U.S. court asking that the testimony be taken. The ALDF applied to the federal court on behalf of the plaintiffs, roughly 100 hippopotamuses, from a lawsuit currently pending in Colombia. According to the ALDF, the lawsuit seeks to prevent the Colombian government from killing the hippos. The interesting thing about this case is that hippos are not native to Colombia and were illegally imported into the country by drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. After Escobar’s death the hippos escaped his property and relocated to Colombia’s Magdalena River and have reproduced at a rate that some say is unsustainable.
In Colombia, animals are able to sue to protect their rights and because the plaintiffs in the Colombian lawsuit are the hippos themselves, the ALDF argued that the hippos qualify as an “interested person” under U.S. law. After applying for the authorization, the federal court signed off on ALDF’s application and issued an order authorizing the attorney for the hippos to issue subpoenas for the testimony of the Ohio experts. After the federal court’s order, the ALDF issued a press release titled “Animals Recognized as Legal Persons for the First Time in U.S. Court.”
The ALDF claims the federal court ruling is a “critical milestone in the broader animal status fight to recognize that animals have enforceable rights.” However, critics of ALDF’s assertions point out that ALDF’s claims are a bit embellished. According to critics, the order is a result of an ex parte application to the court, meaning only one side petitioned the court for the subpoenas and the other side was not present to argue against the subpoenas. Further, critics claim that all the federal court did was sign an order allowing the attorney for the hippos to take expert testimony, the court did not hold that hippos are “legal persons” under the law.
According to ALDF, Dr. Elizabeth Berkeley and Dr. Richard Berlinski, Ohio-based wildlife experts at Animal Balance — courtesy of the Ohio court ruling in October — are set to give testimony to support the use of PZP to prevent the hippo population in Columbia from growing unsustainably, while preventing the need to kill any of them.
While the back story of this strange case could make for an interesting reality television series, I think we’ll stick with Secrets of the Zoo at the Reese house.