Humphrey The Hippo and the Wisdom of Strict Liability For Wild Animals

This story struck me as relevant to the discussion that we just had in class about strict liability for wild animals. The common law makes a possessor of a wild animals strictly liable for any bites or injuries. This liability is often based on the lack of animus rivertendi, or habit of return — the notion that you cannot completely domesticate a wild animal. That is a lesson that Marius Els, 41, learned too late in keeping his pet hippopotamus, Humphrey.

Els raised Humphrey the Hippo since the animal was five months old and built him a special pool in South Africa. He told people that Humphrey was “Humphrey’s like a son to me, he’s just like a human.” Not quite. Els’ mutilated body was found submerged in a river on his 400-acre farm with telltale marks of a hippo attack.

The article below shows Els riding the bull hippo and saying “there’s a relationship between me and Humphrey and that’s what some people don’t understand.” It was apparently a relationship that Humphrey did not fully understand either. Hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal. They weigh up to 8000 pounds and can gallop at 18 m.p.h. They are often covered in scars that bear witness to the violent lives of these animals.

The issue in torts is often whether a person or company possesses a wild animal on their property. This was the issue in Woods-Leber v Hyatt Hotels of Puerto Rico (1997), Hyatt was found not to be strictly liable for an attack on its grounds by a rabid mongoose on a guest. It was not viewed as possessing the animal since wild animals could move freely on to the property. The same issue came up recently in the United States in the case of the woman who had her face ripped off by a neighbor’s pet chimpanzee and a case in Arizona involving a javelina.

Here Els clearly possessed the animal and would have been liable for any injuries to others, including a recent incident where Humphrey chased two people up a tree. Els insisted he was just hungry.

Source: Daily Mail

11 thoughts on “Humphrey The Hippo and the Wisdom of Strict Liability For Wild Animals”

  1. Squeeky, “The Hippopotamus
    As Remembered by
    Squeeky Fromm, Girl Reporter”


    Visited your site and found “Tres Outre’ – A Poem”, and found it to be greatly entertaining and insightful. That photo always makes me giggle and cringe simultaneously. You did good!

  2. T.S. Eliot wrote a poem, The Hippopotamus. I think it went something like this:

    The Hippopotamus
    As Remembered by
    Squeeky Fromm, Girl Reporter

    THE BROAD-BACKED hippopotamus
    Rests on his belly in the mud;
    Beneath him lies Marius Els,
    Who self-described himself, “A Stud!”

    Flesh and blood is weak and frail,
    Susceptible to nervous shock;
    As Humphrey proved beyond a doubt
    When Els did slap him on his hock.

    The hippo’s feeble steps may err
    In compassing material ends,
    Yet, Giddy Up ! worked miracles
    As Els too lately comprehends

    The ’potamus can never reach
    The mango on the mango-tree;
    But coconuts like Farmer Els
    Are easy pickings. R.I.P.

    Or something like that.

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

  3. Hippos are way too dangerous for people to own anyway. Strict Liability isn’t enough in some cases. The rules for owning and purchasing wild, exotic and dangerous animals should be so strictly enforced that without proof of a huge enclosed space, regular caretakers, and a means to stop their inevitable rampage that only the late Michael Jackson could afford (RIP), they can’t be owned outside of a Zoo in the first place. Obviously this was a case in South Africa, but could just as well happen in the US.

    In the recent tragedy here where the guy owned nearly extinct tigers and other exotic animals, then went crazy and set them lose before killing himself, the animals had to suffer, since authorities reaction is to protect the people, and kill the animals who don’t respond quickly enough to tranquilizers. And bringing them closer to extinction hurts mankind as well. Then his wife has the nerve to demand reimbursement and a return of the surviving animals.

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