• Madeleine Pearce

Colombia's "cocaine hippos" legally recognized as people

In a historic departure from the legal definition of "person," a United States federal court order recognized dozens of hippos in Colombia as "persons of interest" to secure protections for the animals despite having no legal authority in the nation. While the legal recognition of animals as people may be a first in the United States, other countries already have designated animals with the same privilege. For example, Pakistan, India, and Argentina have legally recognized certain animals as "persons" through the court system.


The order from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio comes as the Colombian government debates culling or sterilizing the animals in a lawsuit. The large mammals now threaten the nation's biodiversity as a particularly large invasive species, having multiplied with no natural predators. However, the recognition of the hippos' personhood in the United States will not affect the Colombian decision due to national jurisdictions.


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

Photo Courtesy: Fernando Vergara/Associated Press

The hippos, known as "cocaine hippos," descended from one male and three females imported illegally by drug lord Pablo Escobar in the 1980s. Some scientists estimate their current numbers range between 65 and 80, while other calculations suggest as many as 100 hippos now populate the area along Colombia's River Magdalena. The growing population has the potential to affect native species, especially since larger numbers of hippos contribute to greater water contamination in the form of fecal matter.


"I believe that it is one of the greatest challenges of invasive species in the world," said Nataly Castelblanco-Martínez, an ecologist at the University of Quintana Roo in Mexico and lead author of a group studying the hippos' ecological impact.


Following Escobar's death in a shootout in 1993, Colombian authorities relocated the majority of his other exotic animals kept on his private luxury estate. However, hippos weigh upwards of 3,000 lbs, leading to high costs for relocation resulting in their abandonment.


Hesitancy to make a decision will eventually affect human safety, already resulting in the severe injury of one farmworker last year. Internationally, hippos have a reputation as dangerous animals and kill approximately 500 people in Africa every year.


Despite risks, public opinion in Colombia has favored the hippos. After a public outcry when Colombian Army soldiers killed a hippo named Pepe in 2009, authorities established legal protections for the animals. Their popularity only increased as tourism developed in Hacienda Nápoles, with over 50,000 fee-paying tourists visiting the late Escobar's home every year. Meanwhile, rural farmers charge tourists to view the hippos wandering onto their property, providing an additional source of income for locals.


Animal rights activists also share a stake in the futures of the Colombian hippos, viewing the decision as a step forward towards increased protections for various species.


"This is part of a bigger movement of advocating that animals' interest be represented in court," said Christopher Berry, the lead attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund. "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."


Public opinion helped shift the solution towards sterilization, and existing efforts to place the hippos on birth control have proved successful. Although culling or sterilizing the hippos stood out as initial solutions to the population problem, placing hippos on birth control has gained traction as a more humane option. In addition, about 24 hippos have received Gonacon, an immune-contraceptive vaccine causing permanent infertility, based on the accessibility of the animals.


"But there are some other animals that are located in certain areas, in lakes and places that allow for a birth control plan to be put in place, assuming that adequate resources are available," said David Echeverri Lopez, head of forests and biodiversity at the CORNARE regional environmental agency in CNN interview.


While arguably more humane, sterilizing hippos has proved a significant challenge for Colombian biologists who have never worked with such large animals. While cheaper than castration, which costs about $7,000 per animal, obtaining enough doses of Gonacon from the United States Department of Agriculture demonstrates the extent of the international effort to curb breeding.


Although the United States has never legally given animal-human rights within its borders, a current lawsuit concerning a Bronx Zoo elephant named Happy asks the court to invoke human legal protections on an animal.


At age 51, Happy lives alone in an enclosure where visitors can watch her from a slow-moving train. Happy's lawyers at the Nonhuman Rights Project are currently attempting to use legal protections of imprisoned individuals, a writ of habeas corpus, to move her to a sanctuary where she can socialize and enjoy more space.


While a United States court order for an animal within its boundaries would hold legal significance, the decision granting personhood to the "cocaine hippos" will have no legal standing in Colombia. Thus, the precise future of the hippos remains uncertain, and attempts to control the population will continue to push forward in an effort to protect Colombia's native ecology.