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Pablo Escobar’s ‘cocaine hippos’ are legally people, U.S. court rules

A U.S. federal judge granted “interested persons” status to the descendants of Pablo Escobar's hippos in Colombia, in what is said to be the first time the American judicial system has recognized the legal personhood of a nonhuman. (Cornare/AFP/Getty Images)

Some 100 hippos, descended from a herd smuggled into Colombia by the notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, are now recognized by a U.S. court as “interested persons” following a decision this month that is believed to be the first of its kind in the United States.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund, which sought the interested persons designation for the “cocaine hippos,” called the ruling by a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio a “critical milestone” in its larger effort to have the American legal system recognize “enforceable rights” for animals.

Legal analysts say the U.S. court order has no direct effect in Colombia. It remains to be seen what influence the ruling might have on a lawsuit there seeking to safeguard the hippos’ well-being.

Escobar smuggled several hippos onto his estate in the 1980s. Their wild descendants now roam the wetlands north of Bogotá, where they are the largest invasive species on the planet. Colombia had considered culling them, but Luis Domingo Gómez Maldonado, an animal rights lawyer, filed the lawsuit to prevent their being killed.

Colombian authorities have since said they will instead sterilize the herd with a chemical contraceptive called GonaCon, which was developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The United States has donated dozens of doses of the chemical, used to sterilize animals such as horses and deer, to Colombia.

Drug lord Pablo Escobar smuggled hippos into Colombia. Officials are now sterilizing the invasive species.

Now Gómez is seeking to have the hippos treated with a contraceptive that has already been used on the species. GonaCon has not been tested for hippo sterilization.

Ariel Flint, a staff attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said the federal court’s order is “narrow,” in that its purpose is to allow two U.S. wildlife experts to be deposed in support of the legal proceedings in Colombia. But their testimony is “critical in ensuring that the hippos are sterilized in a humane way, and in proving that sterilization is an effective option for any hippos that may yet be euthanized,” he wrote in an email to The Washington Post.

Escobar brought four hippos to his Colombia estate, Hacienda Nápoles, to add to his private collection of exotic animals, which also included ostriches, giraffes and elephants. After his death in 1993, the hippos were left to their own devices. They lived along the Magdalena River and ballooned to the current population of as many as 120.

The biggest community of hippos outside their native Africa, the semiaquatic mammals prospered in the absence of natural predators in South America. Favorable weather in the region may have induced them to reproduce at a younger age, researchers say.

Invasion of the hippos: Colombia is running out of time to tackle Pablo Escobar’s wildest legacy

Gómez, the Colombian lawyer, has praised his country’s jurisprudential attitude toward animals. Colombian courts characterize them as “sentient beings” entitled to some rights, the legal academic Macarena Montes Franceschini wrote in the Journal of Animal Ethics.

In 2018, a Colombian court granted legal personhood status to part of the Amazon rainforest in a landmark decision that urged the government to put an end to the region’s deforestation crisis.

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