Ecuador’s High Court Rules Wild Animals Have Legal Rights

The landmark case involved a deceased woolly monkey named Estrellita

An image of a brown Woolly Monkey sitting by water. The monkey has thick fur and has its arms folded across its belly.
Woolly monkeys have thick dense fur, and are found in the rainforests of the western Amazon River basin.
  Ltshears via Wikicommons under Public Domain

Ecuador's high court has ruled that wild animals possess the legal right to exist, develop their innate instincts, and be free from disproportionate cruelty, fear, and distress, reports Katie Surma for Inside Climate News.

The landmark decision occurred in February after Ecuador's top court interpreted the country's "rights of nature" constitutional laws in a case involving a woolly monkey name Estrellita, Science Alert's Tessa Koumoundouros reports. "Rights of nature" are laws that establish an ecosystem's legal right to exist and regenerate.

Estrellita was removed from her habitat at one month old and kept in a private residence for 18 years. Because possession of a wild animal is illegal in Ecuador, Estrellita was seized by authorities in 2019 and placed in zoo care where she died a month later after undergoing sudden cardio-respiratory arrest.

The court announced the 7-2 verdict, effectively awarding rights to Estrellita, in a 57-page opinion released in January. The decision marks the country's first application of the rights of nature to a wild animal. 

Ana Beatriz Burbano Proaño, a librarian who kept Estrellita for 18 years, taught the monkey to communicate through sounds and gestures, Science Alert reports, and acclimated the animal to the family's culture and traditions. Burbano had filed a habeas corpus petition, a legal mechanism to determine if the detention of an individual is valid, before learning Estrellita had died at the zoo. In the petition, Burbano requested for Estrellita to be returned to her care, citing the animal was likely distressed after being torn from her family and familiar environment. Later, Burbano asked the court to declare the monkey's rights had been violated, Inside Climate News reports.

In December 2021, the case made its way through legal system up to Ecuador's Constitutional Court. The judges had to consider the scope of Ecuador's rights of nature laws to determine whether animals qualify under those rights, and if Estrellita's rights were violated, a statement explains. In January 2022, the court ruled in Estrellita's favor.

In the January 2022 ruling document, the court found the monkey's rights were initially violated by Burbano, for removing the animal from her natural environment, and by the government, for not considering Estrellita's circumstances or considering whether transferring her to the zoo was appropriate, Inside Climate News reports.

The court also stated Ecuador's Ministry of the Environment should develop new rules and methods to ensure an animal's rights are respected and upheld, reports Rosie Frost for EuroNews.

Ecuador is considered one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, with 26 distinguished habitat types and 20 percent of the planet's bird diversity. In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to recognize the rights of nature at a constitutional level, but it was not clear if the ruling covered animals.

"While rights of nature were enshrined in the constitution, it was not clear prior to this decision whether individual animals could benefit from the rights of nature and be considered rights holders as a part of nature," Hugo Echeverría, an environmental lawyer from Ecuador, explained in a statement. "The court has stated that animals are subject of rights, protected by rights of nature."

Other countries, like Canada and New Zealand as well as several cities in the United States, have treaties or local laws that give wild animals some protection. In November 2021, the United Kingdom recognized several invertebrates, including lobsters, octopuses and crabs, as sentient beings. However, these rights have not been applied at the constitutional level, Science Alert reports. 

"There is a reckoning starting to happen that is breaking down the silos of animal law and environmental law, and this case is an important part of that development," says Kristen Stilt, a Harvard Law professor, to Inside Climate News.

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