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Ecuador’s High Court Rules That Wild Animals Have Legal Rights



The case involved a woolly monkey rescued out of the wilderness and subsequently kept as a pet over an entire 18-year period; the judge decided that wild animals should be protected from “disproportionate cruelty, fear, and distress.”

Wild animals have specific legal rights, including the right to exist and develop their innate nature and are free from excessive violence, fear, and suffering. Ecuador’s highest court has issued a landmark ruling that interpreted the country’s “rights of nature” constitutional laws.

The ruling of 7-2 delivered on the Monday of Quito is thought as the very first instance that a court has used the rights of nature–laws that recognize the legal right of ecosystems in their ability to survive and grow–to an animal that is a woolly monkey called Estrellita.

The monkey was removed from the wild at one month old and kept like an animal by Ana Beatriz Burbano Proano for 18 years. Possessing wild animals is against the law under Ecuadorian law. The authorities confiscated Estrellita in 2019 and then transferred her to an animal sanctuary. The animal died within a few months.

When Burbano librarian Burbano discovered that Estrellita was dead, she submitted a habeas corpus request which is a legal process to determine whether the detention of a person is legally valid. In her submission, Burbano asked that Estrellita be released to her. Afterward, she asked the court to declare that their rights of Estrellita were violated. The case was a tangle across Ecuador’s law system before coming to the Constitutional Court in December.

In a 57-page ruling published on January 1, the court decided that Ecuador’s laws on rights of nature apply to wild animals such as Estrellita. The court also concluded that Burbano and the government had violated the rights of Estrellita. The court also ruled that the government should create new rules and procedures to ensure that wild animals’ rights and Constitutional freedoms are protected.

“What makes this decision so important is that now the rights of nature can be used to benefit small groups or individual animals,” Kristen A. Stilt, a Harvard Law professor who is also Faculty Director for the Brooks McCormick Jr. Animal Law and Policy Program stated. “That makes rights of nature a far more powerful tool than perhaps we have seen before.”

The Rights of Wild Animals

The court declared generally are entitled to “not to be hunted, fished, captured, collected, extracted, kept, retained, trafficked, marketed or exchanged” and the right to “free development of their animal behavior, which includes the guarantee of not being domesticated and not forced to assimilate human characteristics or appearances.”

According to the court, the rights are derived from animals’ inherent and personal value, not due to their value to humans. This distinction is crucial because courts usually interpret the rights of nature law to apply to all ecosystems comprised of numerous animals and non-animated elements of the biosphere, such as forests and rivers.

Animal law, however, is primarily concerned with the brutal treatment of animals.

It is important to note that the Estrellita case is essential as it brings together aspects that relate to animal law and environmental law. These are two fields that were at times in conflict with one another, according to Stilt, who filed an amicus brief to the case.

“Typically the law on environmental protection hasn’t been concerned with animals that aren’t deemed to be important species, like threatened species protected by the U.S. Endangered species Act,” she explained. “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.”

She went on to say: “If you pull even just one animal out of the natural environment, you can hurt ecosystems.” According to her, zoonotic diseases that can be passed from animals to humans “are one of the many reasons to be able to leave wild animals in their natural habitats. This includes the protection of areas from devastation.”

Can Ecuadorians Still Eat Meat?

It began the examination by drawing a line between domestic and wild animals.

The court stated that natural ecosystems are home to wild animals rather than being introduced to specific regions or locations by humans.

The court didn’t say whether domestic animals are entitled to certain rights in law. However, omissions leave the possibility that they have rights. Stilt stated that she believes that domesticated animals may have some rights that the court ruled are reserved for wild animals.

“The court leaves a lot of little openings that could be expanded in future cases,” she added.

Concerning farm and wild animals, the court clarified the law that some human-related activities, such as fisheries and animal care, are allowed.

These actions align with the “biological interactions” between species that are a natural aspect of the balance between ecosystems, the court ruled, citing a different Constitutional provision to protect individuals’ right to gain from the natural environment.

Legislation Is Needed to Protect Wild Animals’ Rights

While Estrellita was dead before the court’s decision, however, her decision by the Constitutional Court made clear that animals, as owners of legally protected rights, are entitled to the ability to enforce those rights in a court. In practice, this enforcement is done by a guardian human representing the animal, similar to corporate representatives working on behalf of companies.

The court also decided that the rights of Estrellita were violated multiple times, starting with Burbano’s choice to take the monkey from her natural habitat and to keep her in conditions that were not appropriate to protect the integrity of her nature.

While the government had the power to take Estrellita from Burbano’s house, the court found that the officials infringed on the monkey’s rights by removing her from home without thought given to the specific circumstances of Estrellita or whether her transfer to a zoo was the most appropriate. According to the court, the conditions at the zoo and the trauma of being separated from her familiar living environment could be the cause of Estrellita’s demise.

In the future, authorities must be more cautious and take into account the specific conditions of the animal before deciding to take any action to remove the animal.

“Regarding wild animals, in the first place and as a first alternative, their permanence or reinsertion in their natural habitat should be sought; and, if it is impossible for this to occur due to circumstances specific to the wild specimen (such as a human imprint )…as a second alternative, an institution or person responsible for the care or custody of the animal should be sought,” the court stated.

The ruling also issued a directive to Ecuadorian officials to develop regulations and procedures to guarantee security for wild animal rights.

The Estrellita decision follows several Constitutional Court rulings interpreting Ecuador’s Constitutional rights of nature laws. In December, the court handed down a significant order that barred mining exploration projects in a protected forest, concluding that the project violated nature’s rights. The court, in this case, instructed the government to substantially raise the standards of granting environmental permits for projects that may harm ecosystems.

Ecuador is one of the countries, including Bolivia, New Zealand, Colombia, and Bangladesh, that recognize the rights of nature.

“In America, the rights of nature sounds like a fringe idea, but people don’t realize how mainstream it is around the world,” Stilt stated.

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