Family Matters: Judge grants hippos their legal standing

By Marie Matyjaszek

Gayla Peevey sang “I want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” back in 1953, and may be happy to learn that the U.S. District Court in Cincinnat afforded drug lord Pablo Escobar’s hippos the legal recognition as interested “persons.”

The hippos were illegally imported by Escobar in the 1980s and lived on his ranch in Columbia with a host of other animals. When Escobar died a decade later, the four hippos were left on his property due to the difficulty in moving them. Facing no threats, they reproduced at an alarming rate and now number close to 100. They also apparently have no fear of people, and take frequent trips into town (presumably for shopping).

Because of their growth, the hippos pose a threat to the area’s biodiversity, as well as to humans. The Columbian government began sterilizing some of the animals, and others are proponents of simply killing them. If you’re wondering how the U.S. became involved in a Columbian lawsuit, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) petitioned the U.S. District Court to award “interested persons” status to the hippos so that American experts could testify in the court case.  A federal law allows “anyone who is an ‘interested person’ in a foreign lawsuit to ask a federal court to permit them to take depositions in the U.S. in support of their case.”

Previous attempts to award animals personhood in the U.S. have been denied, but Judge Karen Litkovitz has changed that in granting the ALDF request. Many of the arguments in support of the recognition make sense – animals already have various protections under the law and this allows for enforcement of these rights. In addition, businesses have standing in court and they are not biologically “people.”

It's unclear what impact, if any, the U.S. ruling will have in a Columbian court. However, this case sets precedent for the future rights of other animals. In the past, similar cases for chimpanzees and elephants were denied. Maybe the judge has a soft spot for hippos – like the song says, “only a hippopotamus will do.”
The author is an Attorney Referee at the Washtenaw County Friend of the Court; however, the views expressed in this column are her own. She can be reached by e-mailing her at


Subscribe to the Legal News!

Full access to public notices, articles, columns, archives, statistics, calendar and more

Day Pass Only $4.95!
One-County $80/year

Three-County & Full Pass also available