Pablo Escobar’s ‘Cocaine Hippos’ Are the First Animals to Be Considered Legal ‘Persons’ in the United States

The United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio has, for the first time, recognized animals as legal persons in the country, according to a press statement from the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

The hippos in question live in Colombia’s Magdalena River and are descended from four animals Pablo Escobar formerly held as part of his private zoo.

Since Escobar’s death in 1993, other animals in that zoo, rhinoceroses, elephants, and giraffes, have been transported to more suitable habitats, but the hippos were left alone and have thrived in the area.

The hippos, which are native to Africa, become plaintiffs in a 2020 lawsuit made against the Colombian government, which intends to slaughter approximately 100 of them due to their proliferation and intrusion into adjacent settlements.

To give more humane alternatives to death, including sterilization, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, on behalf of the hippo plaintiffs, filed an application in the Colombian litigation to depose two wildlife experts with experience in nonsurgical sterilization who reside in Ohio.

Judge Karen L. Litkovitz of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio recognized hippos as legal persons last week in order to allow them to benefit from a specific statute.

According to the release, this U.S. statute allows anybody who is an “interested person” in a foreign action to petition a federal court for authority to take expert depositions in the U.S. in aid of a foreign case. Animals are recognized as legal parties in Colombian court proceedings.

The District Court’s decision is the first time in the United States that this recognition has been extended to an animal.

“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,” Animal Legal Defense Fund executive director Stephen Wells said in a statement.

“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.”

Wildlife experts Dr. Elizabeth Berkeley of Animal Balance and Dr. Richard Berlinski of Animal Balance provided testimonies that will be used to build support for a contraceptive that would prevent the hippopotamuses from proliferating without slaughtering them.

However, a CBS News article on the topic stated that the legal action would have no effect in Colombia.

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