Wild animals possess distinct legal rights, including to exist, to develop their innate instincts and to be free from disproportionate cruelty, fear and distress, Ecuador’s top court ruled in a landmark decision interpreting the country’s “rights of nature” constitutional laws.
The 7-2 ruling handed down last month in Quito is believed to be the first time a court has applied the rights of nature—laws that recognize the legal rights of ecosystems to exist and regenerate—to an animal, a woolly monkey named Estrellita.
The monkey was taken from the wild when she was 1 month old and kept as a pet by Ana Beatriz Burbano Proaño for 18 years. Possessing a wild animal is illegal under Ecuadorian law and authorities seized Estrellita in 2019, relocating her to a zoo. She died within a month.
Before Burbano, a librarian, realized Estrellita was deceased, she filed a habeas corpus petition, which is a legal mechanism to determine if the detention of an individual is valid. In the petition, Burbano asked that Estrellita be returned to her and later requested that the court declare that Estrellita’s rights had been violated. The case snaked its way through Ecuador’s legal system, landing before the Constitutional Court in December of last year.
In a 57-page opinion released in January, the court ruled that Ecuador’s rights of nature laws apply to wild animals like Estrellita. The court also found that Estrellita’s rights had been violated by Burbano and the government and that the government must develop new rules and procedures to ensure the constitutional rights of wild animals are respected.
“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 and Faculty Director of the school’s Brooks McCormick Jr. Animal Law and Policy Program, said. “That makes rights of nature a far more powerful tool than perhaps we have seen before.”
The Rights of Wild Animals
Wild animals, the court said, generally have the right “not to be hunted, fished, captured, collected, extracted, kept, retained, trafficked, marketed or exchanged” and the right to the “free development of their animal behavior, which includes the guarantee of not being domesticated and not forced to assimilate human characteristics or appearances.”
Those rights emanate from animals’ innate and individual value, and not because they are useful to human beings, the court said. That distinction is important because courts typically have interpreted rights of nature laws as applying to entire ecosystems, made up of many animals and inanimate aspects of the biosphere like rivers and forests.
Animal law, on the other hand, has mainly been concerned with the inhumane treatment of individual animals.
The Estrellita case is important because it has brought together aspects of animal law and environmental law, two areas that have at times been in tension with one another, according to Stilt, who submitted an amicus brief with the Nonhuman Rights Project in the case. The court relied on the brief throughout its ruling.
“Typically environmental law has not concerned itself with animals that aren’t considered important species, such as endangered species covered by the U.S. Endangered Species Act,” she said. “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 continued: “If you pull even just one animal out of the natural environment, you can have a negative effect on ecosystems.” Zoonotic diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans, she said, “are another of many reasons why humans should leave wild animals alone. That includes protecting their habitats from destruction.”
Can Ecuadorians Still Eat Meat?
The court began its analysis by drawing a distinction between wild and domesticated animals.
Wild animals naturally inhabit ecosystems, as opposed to being introduced to certain regions or locales by humans, the court said.
The court did not say whether domesticated animals possess specific legal rights, but by omission left the door open to the possibility that they do. Stilt said she believes domesticated animals could possess some of the same rights the court said belong to wild animals.
“The court leaves a lot of little openings that could be expanded in future cases,” she said.
When it comes to wild and farm animals, the court made clear that certain human activities, including animal husbandry and fishing, are permissible.
That is because those activities are in line with “biological interactions” between species that are a natural part of balancing ecosystems, the court said, citing another constitutional provision that protects people’s right to benefit from the environment.
Legislation Is Needed to Protect Wild Animals’ Rights
Although Estrellita had passed away before the court’s decision, the Constitutional Court made clear that animals, as holders of legal rights, have the power to enforce those rights before a court. In practice, that enforcement is carried out by a human guardian, acting on behalf of the animal similar to the way corporate representatives act on behalf of a company.
The court also ruled that Estrellita’s rights were violated several times, beginning with Burbano’s decision to remove the monkey from the wild and keep her in conditions not suitable for preserving her natural integrity.
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And, while the government had the authority to remove Estrellita from Burbano’s home, the court found that officials also violated the monkey’s rights by removing her without any consideration of Estrellita’s particular circumstances or whether transferring her to a zoo was most appropriate. The conditions of the zoo and trauma from being separated from her known living conditions could have contributed to Estrellita’s death, the court said.
Going forward, officials must act with greater care and consider the individual circumstances of the animal in question before engaging in a removal action.
“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 said.
The opinion also directed Ecuadorian officials to develop legislation and procedures that guarantee the protection of wild animals’ rights.
The Estrellita decision comes on the heels of other Constitutional Court rulings interpreting Ecuador’s 2008 constitutional rights of nature laws. In December, the court issued another landmark ruling that blocked a mining exploration project in a protected forest, finding that it violated the rights of nature. The court in that case directed the government to significantly increase its standards for issuing environmental permits for activities that could harm sensitive ecosystems
Ecuador is one of several 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 said.