The ‘cocaine hippos’ of drug lord Pablo Escobar recognised as ‘people’ by US court, making legal history

Hippo feeding in Colombia
A hippo named lady Vanessa, who used to belong to drug lord Pablo Escobar, approaches tourists at Hacienda Nápoles, in Puerto Triunfo, Colombia, February 18, 2021. Luis Bernardo Cano/picture alliance via Getty Images
  • Pablo Escobar’s hippos were allowed to stay in the wild after his death.
  • They are mating at an unsustainable rate and given contraceptives.
  • The ALDF has legally challenged their medication, and the court has recognized the animals as ‘people.’

When drug lord Pablo Escobar was shot dead by police in 1993, he left behind not only a cocaine empire, but giraffes, zebras, flamingos, and four hippos.

Most of the animals were sent to zoos, but the four hippos were allowed to remain in a pond near Escobar’s former ranch as they were too heavy to transport.

Since his death, the hippos made their home in the Magdalena River, and have been multiplying. Now, the hippos have been recognized as ‘people’ in US court – a first in American legal history.

They are sometimes referred to as “cocaine hippos” due to Escobar’s prominent role in the cocaine trade and the Medellín drugs cartel.

Weighing 3,000 pounds (1,361kg) the hippos have damaged the local ecosystem and attacked fishermen, there has been a push to slow the rapid growth of the hippo community that is up to 100-strong. It is the largest hippo herd – collectively known as a bloat – outside Africa.

Pablo escobar mugshot
Pablo Escobar US Government Photo

On October 16th, the Colombian government announced it has sterilized 24 of these hippos with a medicine called GonaCon.

However, the Animal Legal Defense Fund [ALDF], a US charity, is lobbying for the use of a different contraceptive, PZP, which they say has “historical success” with hippos in captivity.

There is an ongoing court case in Colombia, in which the hippos are the plaintiffs. The case has now also been accepted by a US court – making the hippos legally recognized as “people.”

The ALDF wants to present evidence on the hippos’ behalf from two experts in nonsurgical animal sterilization, but the experts are based in Ohio, meaning the case would need to go to a US court as well as the Colombian court.

This isn’t uncommon, as under US law an “interested person” in a foreign legal case can apply to an American court to hear from experts.

A spokesman for the animal charity said: “In granting the application the court recognized the hippos as legal persons.”

Stephen Wells, ALDF executive director, said in a statement that “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.”