Things That Matter

How Pablo Escobar’s ‘Cocaine Hippos’ Are Leading The Charge For Animal Rights

Pablo Escobar is known for many things, among them being one of the world’s most prolific drug lords. His Medellín cartel basically invented the modern-day drug business model, which continues to plague communities around the world.

But now, it’s his former pet hippos (yes, the giant hippopotamus) that seem to be getting all the headlines.

Recent court ruling says that Escobar’s hippos are legally protected ‘people.’

It’s true. Pablo Escobar’s hippos just won a milestone court case. Together with their lawyer, they just made U.S. legal history with a court ruling for the first time ever that the animals are legal persons. This could be the springboard for animal rights activists who are currently locked in a battle with environmentalists and local officials in Colombia who want to exterminate the non-native and invasive species.

The legal dispute is between the Colombian government and animal rights groups, with the government wanting to kill the hippos whose numbers are growing at a fast pace and pose a threat to biodiversity. But activists are hopeful the ruling will help sway both the Colombian government’s decisions, as well as the wider U.S. legal system, to grant animals personhood status.

Though it’s worth noting that since the case was argued and decided in the U.S., it won’t carry any weight in Colombia where the hippos live.

“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,” Camilo Burbano Cifuentes, a criminal law professor at the Universidad Externado de Colombia, told NBC News.

Escobar’s hippos have long made global headlines for their damage to local ecosystems.

Back in the 1980s, Pablo Escobar smuggled four hippos onto his estate just north of Bogotá. But when authorities killed him in 1993, and after shipping many of his animals to live in other zoos, they left his four hippos behind. Now, those original four hippos have more than 80 wild descendants who now roam the Colombian wetlands, where they are the largest invasive species on the planet.

Officials had considered exterminating them, but Luis Domingo Gómez Maldonado, an animal rights lawyer, filed the lawsuit to prevent them from being killed.

Authorities have since said they will instead sterilize the herd, and the United States has donated dozens of doses of a chemical used to sterilize animals such as horses and deer, to Colombia. But local activists want to be sure the chemical sterilization process is safe and carried out in the most humane way possible.

The ruling could have a far wider reach than just Escobar’s hippo colony.

Although the legal decision was decided in favor of this specific heard of hippos in Colombia, it could be set a precedent in the fight for animal rights.

“It’s obvious that animals actually do have legal rights, for example, the right not to be cruelly abused or killed… but a legal right is only as valuable as one’s right to enforce that legal right,” Christopher Barry, managing director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, told Gizmodo. “The legal system doesn’t have precedent for animals’ interests directly appearing in court. There’s no precedent for animals having a legal standing to enforce their own rights.”

The precedent could be an important step for other cases in the U.S., such as the lawsuit filed by the Florida-based animal civil rights organization Nonhuman Rights Project on behalf of an elephant at the Bronx Zoo in New York.

And it’s not just animals. 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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