More than 80 hippos previously owned by Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar have a unique distinction in U.S. law: They are the first non-human creatures to be legally considered people.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio recognized the late Escobar’s infamous “Cocaine Hippos” as legal persons for the first time in the United States.
The ruling on Oct. 15 came on the same day the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed an application on behalf of the hippo plaintiffs in Colombia intended to stop that country’s government from killing the animals. The ALDF announced the decision in a news release Wednesday.
The hippos are descendants of four illegally imported by Escobar. They were set free after his death in 1993. Since then, the hippos have increased their numbers to more than 80, and they are reportedly wreaking havoc on the local ecosystem.
However, some scientists have argued they may actually be “restoring ecological functions” lost for thousands of years due to “human-driven extinctions.”
In July, Colombian attorney Luis Domingo Gómez Maldonado filed a lawsuit on behalf of the animals to save them from being killed, saying that sterilization was a better option, according to Newsweek.
Although Colombia law gives non-human creatures legal standing to bring lawsuits to protect their interests, that country’s legal system can’t compel someone in the U.S. to produce documents supporting their case.
However, a U.S. law allows interested persons in Colombia to go to a U.S. federal court to seek the ability to obtain documents and testimony, so the ALDF applied for the hippos’ rights to compel two Ohio wildlife experts who study nonsurgical sterilization to provide testimony on behalf of the plaintiffs.
By granting the application, the District Court recognized animals as legal persons for the first time in U.S. history.
“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 Berry, the attorney overseeing the U.S. case who also serves as managing director at 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 ALDF news release Wednesday said that the testimony of wildlife experts Elizabeth Berkeley and Richard Berlinski would be used to support use of a contraceptive called PZP. ALDF Communications Director Elizabeth Putsche told HuffPost on Thursday that just before its application was granted, the Colombian government announced it had already started giving the hippos a drug called GonaCon. But the ALDF’s experts in the court case had instead recommended the contraceptive PZP as more appropriate for hippos.
Putsche said Wednesday’s ruling will allow the organization to collect more testimony from experts on the most effective and safest form of sterilization for the hippopotamuses. The ALDF is also continuing to monitor the situation to ensure none of the hippos is killed.
ALDF Executive Director Stephen Wells said in the release Wednesday that “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.”
He called the court order “a critical milestone in the broader animal status fight to recognize that animals have enforceable rights.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.