Pablo Escobar's Colombian Hippos Are Legally People: Court Ruling

In a historic court ruling, Pablo Escobar's infamous cocaine hippos are now legally considered people in the eye of the law.

The decision made yesterday comes years after discussion from various authorities to kill off the hippos in an attempt to rid the country of the invasive species. But last July, a Colombian attorney named Luis Domingo Gómez Maldonado filed a lawsuit on behalf of the animals to save them from being killed.

Colombia's history with the hippos started over three decades ago when Escobar, a Colombian drug lord, smuggled animals into the private zoo on his property. The zoo held elephants, zebras, camels, giraffes, ostriches, and four male and female hippopotamuses.

When Escobar was killed by police in 1993, all of Escobar's property was seized. The police sent Escobar's animals off to various zoos but decided to let the hippos stay on the property since authorities believed they wouldn't be an issue and transport of the animals would prove difficult.

Then the hippos did what any hippo does: they reproduced. Now, close to 120 hippos freely roam some 100 miles from the region's capital city. The hippos, dubbed the cocaine hippos, have become a major concern for residents' safety as well as the environmental impact they can have on the area.

Scientists have shared concern about the impact the hippos can have on the ecosystem they've taken over. The hippos are already displacing native species and are altering the chemistry of the waterways they frequent.

Maldonado instead proposed sterilization as an alternative to killing the hippos. Officials in Colombia announced that they would start giving the hippos a chemical contraceptive to sterilize the main breeding group within the hippo population. So far, about 24 of the hippos have been sterilized with a chemical that will make them infertile. However, in Maldonado's lawsuit, he pushed for the use of a different contraceptive that was deemed safer.

Recently, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, an animal advocacy organization in the United States, filed a legal application in an attempt to depose two wildlife experts based out of Ohio with expertise on nonsurgical sterilization to testify on behalf of the hippos.

"Animals have the right to be free from cruelty and exploitation, and the failure of U.S. courts to recognize their rights impedes the ability to enforce existing legislative protections," Stephen Wells, the executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said. "The court's order authorizing the hippos to exercise their legal right to obtain information in the United States is a critical milestone in the broader animal status fight to recognize that animals have enforceable rights."

The organization stated that in granting the application, the court would recognize "the hippos as legal persons with respect to that statute" for the first time in history.

"This U.S. statute allows anyone who is an 'interested person' in a foreign litigation to request permission from a federal court to take depositions in the U.S. in support of their foreign case," a statement from the organization read. "The U.S. Supreme Court has said that someone who is a party to the foreign case 'no doubt' qualifies as an 'interested person' under this statute. The Animal Legal Defense Fund reasoned that since the hippos are plaintiffs in the Colombian litigation, they qualify as 'interested persons' under this statute."

Experts believe that this historical court ruling will provide legal precedent for other animals' legal rights, such as Happy the elephant who resides in the Bronx Zoo. In May the New York Court of Appeals agreed to hear a case from the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), an animal advocacy group based in Florida, in the fight to grant Happy legal "personhood."

Pablo Escobar's Hippos Historic Court Ruling
Pablo Escobar's cocaine hippos have significantly reproduced and now there are about 120 hippos roaming freely around Colombia. In a historic court ruling, the hippos have been granted "legal personhood" which will protect them from being killed off. USO/Getty Images

Correction 10/25/21, 9:44 a.m. ET: An earlier version of this story misspelled Colombian in the headline.