Pablo Escobar’s Cocaine Hippos Have Been Recognized Legally As People In US First

Well, would you argue with a hippo? Image credit: Guillermo Ossa/Shutterstock

In a US first, the district court has recognized animals as legal people for the first time, and of course, it’s Pablo Escobar’s infamous “cocaine hippos”.

The historic ruling by the US District Court for the Southern District of Ohio on October 15 recognizes the hippos as the first non-human creatures to be legally considered people in the US.

If you have questions about what, or should that be who, a cocaine hippo is, let’s do a brief recap: Infamous drug kingpin Pablo Escobar smuggled dozens of exotic zoo animals onto his private ranch in Colombia in the 1980s, including four hippos. After he was killed in 1993 by police, most of the animals were shipped off to zoos, except for the hippos that proved so difficult to capture the police left them on the land thinking the African native creatures would probably die. Instead, they started breeding prolifically.

Thirty years later, the 120-strong population roam Colombia and are considered one of the top invasive species in the world. The government and scientists have been considering their fate for years. Conservationists are concerned about the ecological damage they are doing to Colombia’s Magdalena River basin, while others have used them to make the case for invasive species.

Colombian authorities decided back in 2009 to kill them off, sparking an outcry, and the plan never quite got off the ground, though it has been picking up speed. Last July Colombian attorney Luis Domingo Gómez Maldonado filed a lawsuit on the hippos’ behalf to save them from being euthanized, instead suggesting sterilization. Colombian officials agreed, and the plan to use chemical contraception to sterilize a portion of the main population began to be carried out last week. The local region's environment agency sterilized 24 of the hippos using darts as of last Friday. 

So, what does this have to do with the US? 

The lawsuit to save the hippos argues for the use of another contraceptive drug, and that the deal could still allow for a loophole for some of the hippos to be killed. So the US Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) stepped in, filing a legal application to depose two Ohio-based nonsurgical sterilization wildlife experts to testify on behalf of the plaintiffs – to be clear, the hippos.

Colombian law does allow for non-human animals to bring lawsuits that protect their interests, but can't compel US citizens to produce documentation or testimony to support their case. However, a US law allows citizens, or "interested persons", of Colombia to go to a US federal court to seek documents and testimony. By granting the ALDF the application, the US District Court recognized the plaintiffs – a "community of hippopotamuses living in the Magdalena River” – as legal persons for the first time. 

"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,” said ALDF Executive Director Stephen Wells in a statement.

The plaintiffs have issued no comment as of yet. 

And if you're curious, this is isn't the world's first case of recognizing a non-human as a legal person. In 2015, two chimps nearly became legal persons in a New York ruling, but a New Zealand river was more successful, while a white oak tree in Athens, Georgia apparently owns itself

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