Luis Domingo Gómez: Defender of bears, Attorney of the wild


Are animals deserving of rights under the Constitution? According to a ruling by Colombia’s high court, the answer is a flat-out “No.”

Colombia’s Corte Constituional voted almost unanimously to deny Habeas Corpus to a Spectacled Bear held in captivity, claiming animals are not subject to rights. The decision by the magistrates buries a case presented by the human rights and constitutional lawyer Luis Domingo Gómez to secure the relocation of 28-year old “Chucho” from a sweltering Barranquilla zoo to semi-confinement in his native Andean habitat. After a long legal battle that ended with “decision, but not Justice” – as Luis Domingo Gómez affirms – the conservationist spoke to The City Paper regarding his work and on-going fights to secure dignified living conditions of enclosed and endangered animals.

The City Paper (TCP): Many lawyers have questioned your claim that a bear has inherent rights. How do you respond to your critics?

Luis Domingo Gómez (LDG): From a legal standpoint, who has rights and who doesn’t is a fictitious construction. For this reason, the Law distinguishes between natural persons and legal entities. Have you seen your newspaper walking down a street? The concept of what is personhood originates from ancient Greek traditions when actors used masks to evoke multiple personas. At some point in history, this notion of person was lost, and the concept of who is an individual became synonymous with a human being. In the U.S., the animal advocacy entity Non-human Rights Project, led by attorney Steven Wise, actively challenges animal-welfare laws based on this principle. According to Wise, an impenetrable legal wall separating humans from all nonhuman animals.

TCP: The Constitutional Court’s determined that despite ruling against “Chucho,” animals will not be left unprotected. Where does this leave the animal rights movement?

LDG: The Court’s ruling that “Animals have no rights, only rights to protection” is a regulatory contradiction given the country’s Animal Rights Act (Ley 1774). The court went on to state that: “We humans have a duty to protect them.” There is no mechanism in this country to defend animal rights if the concept of “protection” equates to confinement. Regardless of what is decided in the courts, one has to present difficult cases for a reality check. If the highest court in the land doesn’t interpret this reality, or a legislator can’t read what the public is demanding, do we just idly stand by? The same situation occurs with the issue of same-sex marriage. The reality shows that there are same-sex couples who coexist in far better terms than the majority of heterosexuals. The courts in Colombia had to finally tune-in to reality to give us an answer.

TCP: Does the court’s decision further threaten already endangered species by keeping them in zoos?

LDG: Absolutely, because instead of understanding that many of these animals have a right to live in their natural habitats, we are placing them in zoos as attractions. Spectacled Bears are already highly threatened by the loss of habitat, and by keeping them confined, we are not thinking about our ecological future. When they tell us in a few years that this bear has disappeared, what will we do? Build a museum in its honor? I lead these cases for pleasure because I think it is a way of giving back to life what life gives us. Thanks to the ecosystems all around us, we can be having this conversation.

TCP: Had the court recognized Habeas Corpus for “Chucho,” what would have been the immediate consequence?

LDG: I never requested “Chucho” be released back into the forest. The bear throughout his life has depended on human accompaniment. He was born in semi captivity on a nature reserve where humans helped him grow and eat. But, he was in a similar habitat where his species live. In 1998, he was donated to a reserve in Río Blanco, Caldas, and placed inside a small space with barbed wire fencing. That wasn’t the bear’s decision, but that of his alleged caregiver. As the bear cannot speak, he can’t call up the media and say: “Help me!” Communication is also a construction of what we consider to be deserving of humans.

TCP: Why don’t more legal experts take up conservation cases?

LDG: Many attorneys are afraid of losing their professional prestige defending these causes. I know that many laugh at me, but to themselves, they are saying: “Cool, I like this.” Extending rights to animals is simply a matter of recognizing equality among species. Look also how young people around the world are rallying behind the warnings of climate change led by activist Greta Thunberg. As I said before, our lawmakers must wake up to reality.

TCP: Do you believe that it is a matter of time before rights are extended to nonhuman species?

LDG: I have a column in El Nuevo Siglo, and this proves to me that there are opinion-makers who think to themselves: “We need to change the world. Things can’t keep going as they are.” I am increasingly migrating to these issues because there’s a sensitivity that must be addressed. Today, there’s a necessity for people to dedicate themselves to the environment, and if lawmakers were efficient, we wouldn’t have to be defending a “Chucho,” protecting our bees, or sharks against finning.

TCP: According to some of your answers, many in the legal profession appear to be out of touch with reality.

LDG: In Colombia, the most famous lawyers are not the ones who know the most, but the ones who make the most noise. These lawyers are responsible for discrediting those they do not like, and it seems crazy to them that one does this. As the profession is very closed, one only has to see how marginalized a lawyer can be in Colombia who defends drug traffickers. A lawyer is like a doctor: he must attend the sick. A doctor for the healthy doesn’t exist. A priest for the saintly does not exist either. It’s risky out there.

TCP: I am under the impression that many young people in Colombia want to see change when it comes to environmental issues. Would you agree?

LDG: I would write it as a headline: “Colombia’s environmental management model has failed!” The policy of animal protection is one based in the last century and as a lawyer, I believe one must look to the past to learn from it, and do in the present everything possible to build upon this knowledge. The future should be about regulating what we know in the past was wrong. The world is telling us to better manage our resources. Now, if you want to listen to this, that’s your choice.

TCP: How long did “Chucho’s” case last in the courts?

LDG: Ironically, an Habeas Corpus is designed to promote the immediate release of an individual to regain freedom. And look what happened: We had a two and a half year-long delay in this discussion. Talk about immediacy of Colombian Law! This is why I affirm: “There was a decision, but not justice.”

TCP: A long legal battle can be costly. Is it all pro-bono?

LDG: Nobody pays me to do this. I do it because of my personal connection to nature, and because I am aware that on this planet we are more than one species. Not everything is money.

TCP: Why did you become an animal rights attorney?

LDG: I was born in the small community of Simacota, Santander, with “zero” possibilities of higher education given my circumstances. I received primary education at the agricultural school of Padre Luna in Albán, Cundinamarca, where my studies were a mixture of academics and working in the fields. In Santander, I knew how to plant tobacco and corn, so my relationship with the natural world didn’t come down to: “Oh, look how nice this plant looks,” but one of inter-species connectivity. One of my childhood frustrations was not studying veterinary medicine. I ended up a lawyer because I love history and natural science. I earned my degree from Universidad del Rosario in 2006, earned a specialization in Constitutional Law at the same Alma Mater a year later, and most recently, I got my Masters in Animal Rights from the Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona. So, I think I know what I am talking about (laughing).

TCP: Did the Constitutional Court decision deflate expectations of Colombia’s highest court?

LDG: No. I believe a lot in the Court, as I do in the Rule of Law. I have plenty of experience in taking on difficult causes, beginning with the rights of victims of the armed conflict and forced displacement. If this country can resolve the issue of human rights, it will resolve the country.

TCP: The case of “Chucho” whet the appetite of journalists given the precarious conditions of this bear, but you have defended much smaller species.

LDG: Yes, I won a case many years ago for bees that banned the use of neonicotinoids. Many countries have banned this dangerous insecticide that kills 50% of bees and bumblebees that forage on crops. We always talk about how essential bees are as pollenizers of ecosystems, but just look around to see what is happening to them.

TCP: In many ways, your defense of “Chucho” was also a condemnation of zoological practices in Colombia. Explain.

LDG: One cannot deprive an animal of its freedom in this century. I go to the Court to develop laws. What the Constitution tells me is to protect biodiversity and end captivity. But the court should rule on which animals and which rights. I am not asking Habeas Corpus for flies. Zoos can remain viable entities without having every species in their collection. Why doesn’t the Colombian Government free endangered species to help repopulate territories where their numbers have decreased? The ruling of the Constitutional Court has the same logic as defending slavery. Remember the saying: “The children of slaves, slaves shall be.”

TCP: “Chucho” is not the only bear in captivity. Do you have plans to defend more of this species?

LDG: Yes, and I will continue to defend “Chucho,” and all the bears that are enclosed in inhumane conditions. In fact, “Remedios” is a bear that was born in Remedios, Antioquia, and enclosed today in the zoo Santa Fe de Medellín. She lives in a space no bigger than 50 square meters, which she shares with two other bears. This is absurd! The zoo is also in the middle of a neighborhood, hemmed-in by buildings and avenues. What misery!

TCP: Why would “Remedios” be different than “Chucho” in the eyes of the law?

LDG: Unlike “Chucho” who has been confined for most of his life, “Remedios” was born free. At four months of age, she fell from a tree caused by illegal logging and was separated from her family. Farmers found her and gave her up to CorAntioquia, where she was placed in this zoo. After two years, the environmental agency still doesn’t have a rehabilitation plan for “Remedios.” In Colombia, sending an animal to a zoo is the same as getting rid of a “problem.”

TCP: Does “Remedios” have a chance to regain her freedom?

LDG: The Constitutional Court decides which cases to deliberate on and this takes time. However, zoos cannot keep on going with anti-zoological practices. Colombia has plenty of green spaces where specialized sanctuaries for endangered animals can be created. These animals don’t belong in cities. One only has to look at the San Diego Zoo as an example of a conservation entity that takes extreme measures to save species. In the case of “Chucho”, the Barranquilla zoo is making money from depriving the freedom of an animal!

TCP: Is there a contradiction when Colombia claims to be the second-most biodiverse nation on the planet, yet keeps endangered animals in undignified conditions?

LDG: Colombia may be the second most biodiverse country on the planet, but unless this is sustainable, in less than a decade, we could be ranked much lower. The danger is to believe that these rankings last forever. The country is in all its right to market its biodiversity, as long as it does so responsibly.


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