His hippos are a part of Pablo Escobar's legacy that no one is quick to claim. In the early 1980s, El Patrón, the drug lord, illegally imported four hippopotamuses, to adorn the private menagerie of his ranch in Colombia, the Hacienda Napoles. But after his death on December 2, 1993, the Colombian authorities decided that it would be too expensive to care for them. They simply left them to their fate.
With nature being generous, the herd grew to a respectable size of 80 head: it is now the largest colony of hippos outside of Africa. But these cattle ended up becoming invasive. Not content to frolic around the ranch, they move around as they please and pose a double threat to the environment – their droppings alter the chemistry and oxygen levels of waterways – and people.
Beneath its good-natured airs, this pachyderm is anything but peaceful: it jealously defends its territory and, on occasion, can kill humans – 500 deaths per year, five times more than the lion. So much so that a study published in January by the scientific journal Biological Conservation recommended the slaughter of the herd of "Don Pablo", one of the many nicknames of Pablo Escobar.
Domingo Gómez Maldonado, a Colombian lawyer, animal defender, does not hear it that way. In July, he filed an appeal with the Colombian courts to obtain their pardon. Colombia recognizes certain rights to animals: for the Colombian courts, they are "sentient beings", as the jurist Macarena Montes Franceschini recalled in the spring in an article in the Journal of Animal Ethics.
In 2018, a Colombian court even granted legal entity status to part of the Amazon rainforest in a landmark decision, compelling the Colombian government to halt deforestation in the region.
The Colombian authorities therefore changed their tune and opted for a softer solution: sterilization. After having traditionally castrated eleven cattle, Cornare – the regional environmental protection organization leading the project – chose another method, chemical sterilization, an approach financially and technically supported by the United States. Nevertheless, the organization admits it is fumbling: “The process remains complex, as experts suggest giving three doses, based on studies and comparisons made with other large animals, such as horses. »
Law allowing to claim an American deposition
Since mid-October, more than 20 of these mammals have been darted injecting them with GonaCon, a contraceptive vaccine developed by the US Department of Agriculture. This is the reason why the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) association has seized American justice pursuant to section 1782 of title 28 of the United States Code. This federal law allows an "interested person" to seek a U.S. 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 doctors Elizabeth Berkeley and Richard Berlinski. These two American veterinarians from the NGO Animal Balance, who specialize in sterilization, were 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 veterinarians recommend the use of PZP, a contraceptive used successfully in hippos in zoos. "It is not known if the Colombian government's use of [GonaCon] will be safe and effective, nor is it known how many hippos the government still intends to kill," the ALDF wrote in a statement.
Animal rights in the United States
In her October 15 order, Judge Karen Litkovitz of the Ohio federal court granted the NGO's request. This is the first concrete example of a US court allowing animals to exercise a legal right in their own name. “This 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 not have effect in Colombia, because it is only valid in [American] territory. It will be the Colombian authorities who will decide the fate of the hippos and not the American authorities ”, affirms Camilo Burbano Cifuentes, professor of criminal law at the Externado de Colombia university, 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 modified 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 submitted, in June 2020, a report on the "Well-being of pets and equines" , in which he suggests creating a kind of defender of rights or a state secretariat dedicated to the animal condition, or even an interministerial delegate.
In Spain, a court in Madrid has taken a step in this direction. Deeming animals to be "sentient living beings" and no longer mere "property", a judge granted joint custody of a dog to the two members of a separated couple, the judge having considered that both are "co-responsible" and "co-guardians" of the animal, reports the Spanish channel RTVE.es.