In a legal first, hippopotamuses located in Colombia that were once owned by drug kingpin Pablo Escobar are now considered "interested persons"
pablo esobar hippos
Credit: Juancho Torres/Getty

Hippopotamuses that represent the legacy of Pablo Escobar in Colombia are at the center of a landmark case for animal rights.

Earlier this month, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio recognized the animals as legal persons for the first time in the country, as seen in a release from the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

The hippos in question populate the Magdalena River in Colombia, and descend from four animals once owned by Escobar as part of his private zoo.

In the time since Escobar's death in 1993, other animals in that zoo including rhinoceroses, elephants and giraffes have been relocated to more suitable conditions, but the hippos were abandoned and have thrived in the area, with an abundance of food and no known predators.

The hippos, which are native to Africa, became plaintiffs in a case in 2020 brought against the Colombian government, which has plans to kill around 100 of them as they proliferate and have begun wandering into neighboring villages.

According to the ALDF release, the hippos escaped the Escobar property and relocated to the Magdalena River, where they have reproduced at a rate "that some ecologists consider to be unsustainable."

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Hippos are known to be territorial and dangerous, responsible for more human deaths on African safaris than any other animal.

In an effort to provide more humane alternatives to killing such as sterilization, the Animal Legal Defense Fund sought to depose two wildlife experts with expertise in nonsurgical sterilization who reside in Ohio by filing an application on behalf of the hippo plaintiffs in the Colombian lawsuit.

Last week, Judge Karen L. Litkovitz in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio recognized the hippos as legal persons in order to utilize a specific statute.

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That U.S. statute allows anyone who is an "interested person" in a foreign litigation to request permission from a federal court to take expert depositions in the U.S. in support of their foreign case, the release stipulated. Animals are allowed to be legal parties in court cases in Colombia.

The District Court's decision is the first time this recognition has been applied to an animal in the U.S.

"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."

The testimony of the wildlife experts, Animal Balance's Dr. Elizabeth Berkeley and Dr. Richard Berlinski, will be used to bolster support for a contraceptive to prevent the hippopotamuses from continuing to proliferate without slaughtering them, the release said.

However, a report from CBS News following the matter said the legal move won't have any actual bearing 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," Camilo Burbano Cifuentes, criminal law professor at the Universidad Externado de Colombia, told CBS.

Animals have to date been granted legal rights in Colombia, India, Pakistan and Argentina, but courts in the U.S. have been unwilling to grant similar rights to animals until now.