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Offspring Of Pablo Escobar’s Cocaine Hippos Legally Recognized As People In U.S. Court Ruling

“The order authorizing the hippos to exercise a legal right sets an important precedent that animals do have legal rights and that there is room in the legal system for them to enforce those rights,” Christopher Berry, an attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, told Oxygen.com

By Dorian Geiger
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A bloat of hippopotamuses, whose descendants inhabited Pablo Escobar’s Colombian estate in the 1980s, have been granted personhood and legal rights, according to a federal court order.

The miscellaneous case, filed against the Colombian government, pertains to the planned slaughter of approximately 100 hippos, the offspring of those previously owned by the infamous drug lord. Scientists contend the long-abandoned hippos pose a major threat to the Magdalena River basin and its surrounding habitat.

The case, which was brought forth by attorneys for the San Francisco-based Animal Legal Defense Fund, was filed in Cincinnati in the U.S. District Court of Southern Ohio on Oct. 15. Federal magistrate Judge Karen Litkovitz approved the suit’s request granting personhood status the same day, court documents show.

“The order authorizing the hippos to exercise a legal right sets an important precedent that animals do have legal rights and that there is room in the legal system for them to enforce those rights,” Christopher Berry, the case’s lead attorney, told Oxygen.com

The ruling, which is the first-known time the U.S. has legally recognized animals as people, has been hailed as a monumental achievement by animal rights groups across the country.

“Legal personhood can be a challenging concept to understand — it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a specific number of legal rights,” Berry added. “It just means you have one or more legal rights that you can enforce in court.”

Berry, who noted that corporations can be considered legal persons under certain court rulings, said the same legal precedent should be extended to animals.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund requested the federal court to grant “interested persons” status to hippopotamuses in order to depose a pair of Ohio wildlife experts, who specialize in sterilization.

According to a federal statute, anyone defined as an “interested person” in a foreign lawsuit can legally request a federal court to take depositions to bolster their case. 

“The immediate impact is we’ll obtain expert testimony in the United States to support the hippos’ case for being humanely sterilized instead of killed in Columbia,” Berry explained. “A broader implication of this ruling will be to use this precedent in support of advocating for animal standing and ability to enforce other legal rights, including the right to not be cruelly abused.”

A deposition in the case is now scheduled for Nov. 15 in Cincinnati, according to court documents. 

The animal rights’ group attorneys argue that because advocates for the hippos are able to litigate on their behalf overseas, the hippos should be considered “interested persons” domestically. 

“The only thing we’re asking for is the ability for animals to enforce rights that have already been given to them, whether that is the right for an animal as a foreign litigant to obtain testimony to support their foreign lawsuit, as is the case of the hippos.”

The landmark ruling was also applauded by other animal activists across the U.S.

“This is a pretty big deal for people who love animals and try to protect them,” Carole Baskin, the founder of Florida’s Big Cat Rescue, told Oxygen.com. “I think we will look back in the future on this as being one of those milestones along the way to animals having the ability to be protected by our laws and have some say in how they’re treated.”

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Some legal experts, however, cautioned that the court's personhood ruling pertaining to the hippos will have no bearing whatsoever in Columbia. 

“The ruling has no impact in Colombia because they only have an impact within their own territories,” said Camilo Burbano Cifuentes, a criminal law professor at the Universidad Externado de Colombia, according to the Associated Press. “It will be the Colombian authorities who decide what to do with the hippos and not the American ones.”

Animals have secured human-like rights in a number of countries, however, legal efforts to issue personhood to animals, had, up until now, fallen short in U.S. courts.

In 2014, an orangutan in Argentina was granted some human rights, according to court documents. Other countries, such as India and Pakistan have also bestowed personhood to animals, following similar court rulings.

In 2017, a Connecticut superior court judge denied personhood to three elephants living in a traveling petting zoo. Judge James M. Bentivegna blasted the suit, filed by animal rights group, the Nonhuman Rights Project, as “wholly frivolous,” in his decision, according to a copy of the ruling obtained by Oxygen.com.

Earlier this year, however, the New York Court of Appeals agreed to hear a case involving an elephant named “Happy” at the Bronx Zoo. Animal rights lawyers representing the elephant are pushing for the elephant’s human rights and for it to be relocated to a sanctuary.

“This court agrees that Happy is more than just a legal thing, or property,” Judge Alison Y. Tuitt concluded in court documents. “She is an intelligent, autonomous being who should be treated with respect and dignity, and who may be entitled to liberty.” 

New York courts had previously denied “legal thinghood” to “imprisoned” chimpanzees held captive in four different counties in the state.

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The simmering legal battle over whether to sterilize or kill the hippos abandoned at Hacienda Nápoles, Escobar’s sprawling Colombian ranch, dates back to the height of the feared cartel boss’ drug empire. 

In the 1980s, the cocaine kingpin smuggled a number of exotic animal species, including giraffes, elephants, kangaroos, and a small group of hippos, into the country to live at his luxury estate. The four hippos, which consisted of one male and three females, came from a U.S. zoo. 

Following Escobar’s death in December 1993 in a shootout with Colombian special forces in Medellín, his drug empire collapsed, and the government subsequently confiscated his animal collection. Many were relocated to zoos, however, the hippos, which are dangerous and difficult to capture, were left to live and breed unfettered. Escobar's estate was ultimately converted into a family theme park.

By the 2000s, feral hippos were found roaming roughly 55 miles from the pond on Escobar’s ranch. In 2020, ecologists estimated the bloat had grown to between 65 and 80 specimens. By 2035, experts predicted their numbers could swell to as many as 1,500. They’ve been declared the largest invasive animal in the world.

The Colombian government, which unsuccessfully began a contraceptive sterilization program to keep the hippos’ population down, have also banned culling practices, after a person was killed by a hippo.

A leading group of scientists, however, are now insisting the selective slaughter of the hippopotamuses is the only option in order to thwart a major population explosion — and prevent an irreversible ecological disaster. Hippos, scientists say, are the largest invasive animal in the world, and pose a threat to rural settlements and fish populations in the river basin’s surrounding wetlands. 

“Hippos in Africa are widely perceived to be one of the major threats to the security and livelihoods of rural people, due to their propensity for chasing, attacking and killing conspecifics, humans, and other large vertebrates on land and in water,” wrote Nataly Castelblanco-Martínez, an ecologist at the University of Quintana Roo in Mexico in a new study, co-authored by more than half a dozen other scientists.

“It is expected that as the invasion spreads, further overlapping inhabited areas, hippos' aggressions could become increasingly frequent, thus augmenting the likelihood of human fatalities,” Castelblanco-Martínez added. “Even if such overlap does not result in fatal events, psychosocial impacts and cultural damages should be part of further conflict assessments.”

The study, which notes that hippos kill more people annually than any other African mammal, insists the government take swift action before it’s too late, despite opposition from conservation groups and locals alike. 

“Our projections indicated that the only course of action that could probably lead to the extirpation of this exotic species is to implement a high-level extraction by culling,” Castelblanco-Martínez concluded in her paper, which was published in January in the peer-reviewed journal, Biological Conservation.

The Colombia Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment surrounding the U.S. court ruling.