U.S. Judge Rules Pablo Escobar’s ‘Cocaine Hippos’ Should Have Legal Rights

The offspring of hippos once owned by Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar can be recognized as people or “interested persons” with legal rights in the U.S. following a federal court order.

It involves a case against Colombian authorities over killing or sterilizing hippos. Their numbers are increasing at an alarming rate and they pose a danger to biodiversity.

Animal rights organizations hail the decision as a major victory in long-standing efforts to get the U.S. justice systems to give animals the status of personhood. But the order won’t carry any weight in Colombia where the hippos live, a legal expert said.
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“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 professor at the Universidad Externado de Colombia.

The “cocaine hippos” are descendants of animals that Escobar illegally imported to his Colombian ranch in the 1980s when he reigned over the country’s drug trade. After his death in a 1993 shootout with authorities, the hippos were abandoned at the estate and left to thrive with no natural predators—their numbers have increased in the last eight years from 35 to somewhere between 65 and 80.

A group of scientists has warned that the hippos pose a major threat to the area’s biodiversity and could lead to deadly encounters with humans. Some of them are calling for the killing of some animals. One government agency started sterilizing hippos. However, there’s a lot of debate about which methods are safest.

In the suit, attorneys for the Animal Legal Defense Fund asked the U.S. District Court in Cincinnati to give “interested persons” status to the hippos so that two wildlife experts in sterilization from Ohio could be deposed in the case.

The request was granted by Karen Litkovitz (Federal Magistrate) in Cincinnati on October 15. The animal rights group based near San Francisco said it believes it’s the first time animals have been declared legal persons in the U.S.

Their attorneys argued that, because advocates for the hippos can bring lawsuits to protect their interests in Colombia, the hippos should be allowed to be considered “interested persons” under U.S. law.

They pointed to a federal statute that allows anyone who is an “interested person” in a foreign lawsuit to ask a federal court to permit them to take depositions in the U.S. in support of their case.

Christopher Berry was the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s lead lawyer. He called the ruling a very narrow, but important, decision.

“This really is part of a bigger movement of advocating that animals’ interest be represented in court,” he said. “We’re not asking to make up a new law. We’re just asking that animals have the ability to enforce the rights that have already been given to them.”

While animal rights have been granted in India, Pakistan, and Argentina, the U.S. courts have not yet allowed this to happen.

Continue reading: A Court will decide if an elephant deserves the same rights as a person in a legal first

A judge in Connecticut called a petition filed four years ago by an animal rights group to grant personhood to three elephants in a traveling petting zoo “wholly frivolous.”

In another closely watched case, the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, agreed in May to decide whether an elephant at the Bronx Zoo should get human-like rights and be moved to a sanctuary.

The claims of animal rights organizations were dismissed in earlier rulings. The zoo contends that granting legal “personhood” to the the elephant named Happy would set a dangerous precedent and has called the efforts “ludicrous.” Gun rights groups also have criticized the move out of concern it could impact hunting or set a precedent.

Backers point to court rulings that have given corporations legal rights and considered them to be legal persons—reasoning that animals should be treated the same under the law.

“Legal personhood is just the ability to have your interest heard and represented in court,” Berry said. “It’s about enforcing rights they already have under animal cruelty laws and other protection laws.”


Seewer was reporting from Toledo, Ohio. Associated PressAstrid Suarez, Colombian writer, and Regina Garcia Cano, Mexico City journalist, contributed.


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