How To Castrate Colombian Coke Hippos (Good Luck)

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Pod of hippos in water
Photo by: Paulmaz, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Pablo Escobar was a real peach of a guy. During the 1980’s, his Colombian cocaine empire had grown so successful that he became the richest crook in history, amassing billions of dollars from his international smuggling ring. Being the King of Cocaine isn’t easy, though. To keep it up, he had to do a lot of murders, not to mention bribes and various other crimes. Colombia became the murder capitol of the world as a result. And like any sensible billionaire drug-lord/murderer/terrorist, he decided that a good thing to do with his money was to build his own illegal private zoo, complete with illegal elephants, illegal giraffes, and… illegal hippopotamuses.

So he built Hacienda Nápoles, his own private resort. East of the city of Medellín and northwest of the capital, Bogotá, this 20 km2 estate housed not only a crime-zoo, but also a sculpture garden, a bullfighting ring, and a private airport. And, aside from the massive fear and bloodshed he left in his wake, everything was going smooth for a while. Even when he was eventually arrested, he somehow got them to allow him to stay in his own personal prison that he built for himself. That’s… that just seems totally insane, but that’s what the internet says, and I believe it. This “prison” included a bar, a soccer field, and a… apparently a giant dollhouse?!? I have questions, but I don’t actually want to know the answers because it’s more amusing that way. Was this a dollhouse for normal-sized dolls that was just a lot bigger than normal? Was this a normal sized dollhouse only for giant dolls? Wouldn’t that just make it a house? Was there a house inside his house? Did this murderous bastard really have a fucking doll collection? What was the 80’s and how did it happen? We will never know. Well, I won’t, anyway.

Rusted out car from what's left of Pablo Escobar's car collection at Hacienda Nápoles
Pablo’s car collection at Hacienda Nápoles hasn’t aged well…
Photo by: Motero colombia, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Eventually the Colombian government decided that allowing the most powerful criminal in the world to live in luxury while he continued to run his empire from his “prison” was kind of defeating the purpose. He scrammed before they managed to actually do anything about it, though, and spent the next sixteen months on the run. Finally, in 1993, he was cornered by authorities and killed in a gunfight at the age of 44. Not a long life, but hey, I’m sure it was all worth it so he could have a private zoo for a few years!

And that zoo was a bit of a problem. The government took possession of Hacienda Nápoles after Escobar died. But they didn’t need or want a new public zoo there, and they couldn’t afford to keep the animals. So they started to donate them to various zoos, basically whoever was willing to take them off their hands. But the cocaine hippos were a problem. There were four of them, three females and one dude hippo. And while the cocaine-zoo had other large cocaine-mammals like the cocaine-elephants and cocaine-giraffes, these species aren’t terribly cocaine-aggressive, and they were able to corral them in to trucks and ship them out. The hippopotamuses though… they didn’t want to leave. And you can’t really make an adult hippo do anything it doesn’t want to.

That’s one crazy car!

Maybe you’re not super clear on how big a hippopotamus is. The only land animals more massive are rhinos and elephants. Their closest living relatives are actually whales. Hippos get up to 5 meters or 16 feet long, and can weigh over 2,000 kilograms or 4,400 pounds. Basically, they’re the size and weight of a four-door sedan. A sedan with teeth that are half a meter long. And they’re dangerous. Notoriously aggressive, hippos kill hundreds of people every year and routinely tussle with full grown crocodiles. Imagine that your Toyota Corolla came alive, grew giant-assed teeth, and got so rowdy that when it saw a 15-foot long Nile crocodile, it said, “yeah I’ll fuck that guy up, sure”. Now… imagine some coke kingpin had four of those in captivity and your job was to try to get them to walk into a truck. Hold on, I have here a transcript of an actual conversation between two government employees as they debated how to handle the hippos.

Dude #1: “So, we did the giraffes, the antelope, the kangaroos, the fucking elephants… all that’s left is these hippos.”
Dude #2: “Yep.”
Dude #1: “So… uhh… I’ll go get the truck and back it up here, and you can push them in.”
Dude #2: “The fuck you say. I’ll drive the truck and you can fuck with those things.”
Dude #1: “Can we maybe just get Escobar to do it? They’re his fucking hippos.”
Dude #2: “He’s dead.”
Dude #1: “Shit. So… lunch then?”
Dude #2: “Okay. And then we should quit our jobs, because I am not getting in there with those fucking hippos. Look at them. You could park a VW Beetle in their mouths when they yawn.”
Dude #1: “Yeah, good point. Are there any drug lords left alive that we could go work for?”

That’s more or less how it went down. They looked at those hippos and did the math. And they decided they did not get paid enough to risk their lives over them, nor did they have the funds to bring in experts who knew what to do with them. So, they just left them. They figured, with nobody to care for them, they’d die eventually, and problem solved.

Two hippos biting each other in the water
Whipsnade Zoo, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Boy were they wrong.

The hippopotamuses were able to roam freely around the compound, where there were several lakes and plenty of food for them to eat. Unlike their native habitat in Africa, Colombia doesn’t have a dry season to crowd them into small pools as the water dries up. The grass grew lush and plentiful all year long. It was hippo paradise. And it so happens that, since one male can impregnate several females, the ratio of three females to one male was ideal for starting a new hippo colony in their little patch of Eden. With plenty of food and no large predators to prey on the young hippos, they bred quicker and more successfully than they would have in their native habitat. The exotic hippopotamus was on its way to becoming an invasive species.

No one really noticed at first. Eight or ten hippos doesn’t seem like any more than four when they spend their daytime hours mostly submerged in the murky waters of an abandoned resort. But they kept on reproducing. Before long, they had spread to the nearby Rio Magdalena, a large river system with connected lakes and wetlands. Eventually they started roaming nearby farms and even casually strolling down the streets of local towns. People got to recognize individual hippos. They gave them names. They fell in love with these hippos. And it’s understandable… the very size that makes them so dangerous also makes them fascinating. The shape of their heads and facial features are unique in the animal kingdom, and the babies are downright adorable. Soon, tourists started showing up to see the famous cocaine hippos. Locals started selling hippo tee-shirts and souvenirs. They erected hippo statues. Hippos became part of the local identity.

I’ll wait now while you get it out of your system. You know, the fact that I said “erected”. I saw that look on your face. You’re so immature.

… pervert

Anyway, at this point, biologists were starting to become concerned. Hippos are a big deal. They’re big animals, with big feet, and you know what they say about that? That’s right. They produce an incredible amount of poop. Seriously, this is a big deal. Because what they do is, at night they roam around on land eating grass and whatever else they can find. They eat a LOT of it. Then during the day, they return to the lake or river and they poop, and poop, and poop. They poop so much it affects the entire river ecosystem. They’re basically transferring nutrients from the land and dumping it into the water. It changes the water chemistry. Algae, bacteria, and plankton go nuts from the added nutrients. Algae add oxygen to the water, but only during the daytime. Bacteria consume oxygen. Dead algae decomposes, feeding more bacteria, which consume more oxygen. You can end up with a situation where everything is fine during the day, but at night all the oxygen in the water gets sucked up and you get a mass fish kill.

That’s one thing in the hippopotamus’s native rivers where everything is adapted to this activity. But in Colombia, it’s a new phenomenon. Nobody is sure how bad that might be for the local ecosystems. What we do know is, the Rio Magdalena is home to a number of endangered species, including manatees and several species of turtles. Hippos might fuck everything up for all of them. Never mind the hundreds of species of fish that reside there, many of which feed the local population and provide a source of income. The cocaine hippos have already had significant effects on the water chemistry in the river, and we’re only sitting at around 80-100 animals currently. Population models estimate the river could eventually sustain over 1,500 hippos if they’re left unchecked. By that point, the river might have become unrecognizable. It will also become nearly impossible to control their populations by then. There will simply be too many of them spread over too large of an area.

Manatee with calf
Manatees are native to the Rio Magdalena and are at risk of being out-competed by the hippos

Just as biologists were deciding how to deal with the situation, tragedy struck. Not for any humans, but for a hippo. His name was Pepe. Yeah. They… they fucking named him Pepe. Again, I get it, they’re cool and fascinating and charismatic, but… holy crap people. Get a dog. Much more reasonable. Anyway, Pepe and three of his buddies decided to take a romp around some farms back in 2009. You know, just some young kids out raising hell. Their antics caused enough damage and concerned enough people that the authorities decided to get involved. They shot Pepe and chased the other hippos off. That they killed the town mascot was bad enough, but then they fucking posed for photos with the carcass, like they were super proud of their achievement. Not a good look, guys. In fact, it infuriated the locals. They held protests. They wore hippo masks while they protested. Pepe had been one of them, and this was not going to be tolerated.

And it wasn’t tolerated. In response to the public outcry, the government promptly banned killing hippos. Giant, bone-crushing, poop-spewing cocaine hippos that had no business being there to start with were now protected by law. This suddenly made things much harder for the biologists, who were coming to the conclusion that they were probably going to have to start killing hippopotamuses in order to stop their spread throughout the Rio Magdalena. Although, the fact that locals were ready to revolt over the death of just one hippo probably would have made them reconsider their plans anyway.

Please spay and neuter your hippopotamuses

So… population control by hunting or culling was off the table. That has pretty much left biologists with two possible solutions. Capture the cocaine hippos and put them in zoos, or sterilize them. Neither one is a great solution. If relocating them were easy, the government would have done it back when they just had four to deal with and they knew exactly where they were. Now with dozens wandering all over the place, it’s much harder. Four young hippopotamuses have been captured and sent to zoos, but it’s difficult, dangerous, time consuming, and expensive. Plus, pretty much any zoo that wants hippos already has them. They’re expensive animals to keep and need large enclosures, so if a zoo hasn’t prepared for it, they’re not likely to take on a new one. It’s unlikely that homes could be found for all of them.

And as for sterilization… I mean, look. I just told you what a pain in the ass it was to just catch one of these things. Now imagine catching one and trying to cut its nuts off. Seriously, go ahead and imagine yourself doing that. Remember how big they are? How dangerous? That they kill 500+ people in their native range every year? Well, it actually is even worse than what you’re imagining. Colombian biologists first had to get their hands on a hippo and tranquilize it. You can’t just give it a bunch of Benadryl and hope it falls asleep. You need some potent, dangerous drugs, and a delivery system powerful enough to penetrate their thick hide. You also can’t just lure them in to any pen… the first one they constructed wasn’t sturdy enough and the animal just crushed his way out of it. And once they built a second pen, lured a male hippo in with some tasty carrots, and knocked it out, they had to spend three hours trying to find his testicles.

Oh yeah, you read that right. And it’s not because they’ve got tiny balls. It’s because their testes are both internal, and also move back and forth in this little canal that they’re tucked in to. It’s fucking wild. Internal testes aren’t all that unusual. There’s a fair number of mammals where the males don’t have a scrotum and the testes are internal much like the ovaries. Generally, they’re stable. They stay put in a predictable location, just like all the other organs. But with hippos, the testes can move from relatively near the skin, to as far as half a meter inside their body cavity. And they do this relatively quickly, capable of changing position from minute to minute.

hippopotamus in water, crocodile in background
Photo by: Nevit Dilmen, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

So these poor biologists, who work in South America and had never come in to contact with a hippopotamus before, had to sit in a cage out in the middle of the jungle somewhere, with a 2-ton monster that, if it were to suddenly wake up, could easily crush the life out of them. They then had to just basically guess where to cut them open and start digging around, hoping to find something that looked like a testicle. And they had to reach elbow-deep in the poor creature, because those sneaky testes might have wandered that far inside. Oh, and also, if they fuck up and the animal dies from the surgery, possibly because it took too long, the locals might literally try to kill them.

Apparently even professional zoo veterinarians who actually have experience doing hippopotamus surgery still have trouble with hippo testes. The recommended method is to do an ultrasound to find them. Only, you have to cut them open and jam the ultrasound scanner inside of them, because if the testes are deeply retracted, the ultrasound won’t be able to find them from the outside. They have trouble finding ovaries on the females, too. The ovaries are better behaved than the testes, it’s just still hard to find them… they’re not big and there’s a lot of hippo to sort out in there. So the folks tasked with doing these field sterilizations have, for the time being, given up on females altogether. Which sucks because, for population control, it’s better to sterilize the females than the males.

Since the local biologists don’t have access to a mobile ultrasound capable of being inserted inside the body cavity of a hippo, they still have to plan on the castration taking a long time to complete. Luring them in to pens is something they’re getting better at, but the whole process from start to finish still takes hours, or even days if they don’t have luck trapping one. Each castration costs thousands of dollars for the labor and equipment involved, and these guys just don’t have a budget to do more than one or two a year.

Anybody want to buy a hippo?

Estimates of the cocaine hippo population growth rate indicate that they will need to sterilize at least 30 animals a year if they want to have a shot at keeping the population from blowing up. Without a big increase in funding, that’s just not going to happen. There’s only a couple of people tasked with the job, and they’re on a tight budget. It’s looking more and more like killing them is going to be the only viable solution. And, to be clear, the biologists don’t really want to kill them either. They’ve said as much. They’d rather sterilize them and then let them live out their lives, or ship them off to zoos. They’re just as fascinated by the creatures as the locals with the hippo masks and tee-shirts. They probably have an emotional connection with them just like everyone else. My guess is that they believe the hippos have just as much a right to live as anything.

But there’s more at stake. Manatees and other threatened species are at serious risk of being driven out of the river entirely. Even common animals are at risk locally. Capybaras are the biggest rodent in the world. They’re also known as “water pigs” because, like hippos, they like to hang out in water and eat nearby grasses and reeds. They share habitat and food preferences with the cocaine hippos, but while they’re big for a rodent, they’re nowhere near big enough to compete with a hippopotamus. These hippos are out stealing their dinner every night. If they take over the river system, capybaras might be driven out. Guess what likes to eat capybaras? Everything. Big cats, birds of prey, even snakes. Guess how many of those species will be able to eat hippos when the capybaras are gone? There’s other food for them to eat, sure. But that means that those other prey species will have increased pressure from predation as a result. Some might not be able to cope well.

Capybara with 3 juveniles in aquatic vegetation
Capybaras are common, but even they could be pushed out by the hippos
Photo by: Clodomiro Esteves Junior, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

And sure, the locals love the hippos now when there’s a hundred of them. But what about when there’s a thousand? What about when every farm within ten kilometers of the river gets trampled by them every night and their crops get eaten? What about when people start getting killed? What about when the fish that people depend on for food and income start dying off? Will the tourism money make up for all that? They’re already starting to see some of these problems. Farmers are reporting more problems with hippos. There have been traffic accidents involving them. And in 2020, a local man accidentally surprised a hippo in the river. It grabbed his leg and tossed him, breaking several bones. It’s just a matter of time before there’s a fatality.

Now, look. I’m not trying to cast the hippopotamus as some kind of evil villain. It’s obviously not. They’re just doing what hippos do. The problem is, they’re just out of place in Colombia. If their population gets much bigger, the changes they make to the river and surrounding ecosystems might be irreversible. I also don’t intend to be overly critical of the local population for developing an emotional attachment to them. Maybe they don’t understand the cascading changes that could happen to the Rio Magdalene as a result of invasive hippos spreading throughout the area. They’re certainly not wrong to be fascinated by the creatures… they’re awesome. They also serve as a reminder of the heyday of the coke kings. While it was a terribly violent and dangerous time in Colombia, many folks have a romanticized view of it. Some even consider Pablo Escobar to be a sort of Robin Hood figure, since he occasionally built a soccer field or housing for the local towns. These hippos are a connection to that past. They’ve become part of the local culture. That’s not easily ignored.

Hindsight is filled with hippos

But, when you pull back and look at the problem at the scale of the entire ecosystem, the cocaine hippos are a serious problem. The best solution to this problem would have been to either sterilize the original four when they had the chance, or else pack them off to zoos. It would have been difficult compared to dealing with the other animals at the drug-zoo, yeah, but still very possible. But that ship has sailed now. There’s no ideal outcome any more. If the hippopotamuses aren’t kept in check, they’re going to make huge changes to the river, probably for the worse. Possibly a lot worse.

They’re also going to start having a negative impact on the local community, and that boost to the economy from tourism could be wiped out by losses in the commercial fishing industry. And the next time a spooked hippo tosses some poor bastard through the trees, he may not be lucky enough to just break his hip and a few other bones. None of these things are certain, of course. But it’s generally a bad idea to run an open-ended experiment in the real world that you have no way of controlling or stopping. If Colombians really want to keep their hippos, they’re going to need to cough up the funding to sterilize thirty or more a year. Maybe there’s a compromise situation here… maybe the hippos still hanging around the old resort (which is now a fucking amusement park by the way, because of course it is) could be sterilized, and only the ones in the river could be killed. That would still achieve the goal of keeping the population from spreading, but be cheaper than trying to capture and perform surgery on all of them. These are hard choices, and nobody is really going to be happy with any of them. But time is running out to decide what to do.

Octopus waterslides at the theme park occupying the grounds of the original Hacienda Nápoles
This is Hacienda Nápoles today
Photo by: Alvaro Morales Ríos, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

There is some hope for a less-bad solution, however. The mysterious mobile testicles are a problem, so the biologists are going to experiment with another method. There’s a technique of chemical castration that’s commonly used on farm pigs. It doesn’t literally castrate them, of course, but it blocks sex hormone production, so the end result is about the same. It’s unclear if this would be effective on hippos because, weirdly, nobody has tried it yet. And we don’t know for sure if it would be a permanent solution, or if the animals would need to be dosed with the drug periodically. But it’s worth looking in to, and who knows, maybe it will pan out.

Of course, there’s a much more obvious solution to all of this. Cocaine is still a profitable drug. The locals could start selling it to help fund the hippo project. They could even use hippo branding, call it “Hippo Cocaine” and make up a logo with a crazy-eyed hippo on it. If it was really successful, they could forget about sterilizing the hippos, and instead hire disreputable geneticists who had been fired for their unethical practices, and have them bring back the saber-toothed cat, Jurassic Park style. That way the long-extinct predator could be released in to the wild and maybe, hopefully, eat the hippos, keeping their population in check. Nothing could go wrong with this plan, it is both moral and feasible. I can’t believe nobody has thought of it. And when it all falls apart and the mad scientist running the show is arrested, they’ll just build their own private prison to live in, and then a giant dollhouse inside of that, and, like, their dolls will sell cocaine to each other and have pet doll hippos that eventually start tearing up the giant dollhouse. But here’s the twist: having learned from their mistakes, the imprisoned scientist will have designed the doll hippos with external testicles in a normal scrotum. That will make it a lot easier for the prison-dolls to castrate them, and stop this vicious cycle once and for all. It’s a great plan, and you read about it online, so you know it’s true.

Pablo Escobar’s hippos must be culled to halt biodiversity disaster
Colombians grapple with a big problem: wandering hippos
Moving testicles frustrate effort to calm hippos by castration

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