The 7-2 ruling elevating the legal status of nonhuman animals arose from the case of a woolly monkey called Estrellita. She was taken from the wild illegally and lived with the family of librarian Ana Beatriz Burbano Proano from the time she was one month old.
Estrellita lived with the family for 18 years as a pet, learning to communicate with them using sounds and gestures, and she even took on their customs. However, because owning wild animals is illegal in Ecuador, authorities seized Estrellita in 2019. They brought her to a zoo, where she died a month later after suffering a sudden cardio-respiratory arrest.
Prior to learning of her death, Burbano filed a court case to get the monkey back, citing the distress she would have been experiencing after being abruptly taken from the only life she had ever known.
The case presented scientific evidence of the social and cognitive complexity of the woolly monkey species to argue that the monkey deserved the right to “bodily liberty” and that the "environmental authority should have protected Estrellita's rights by examining her specific circumstances before placing her in the zoo."
Ultimately, the court ruled that both the authorities and Burbano had violated the monkey’s rights. Burbano violated Estrellita’s rights by taking her from the wild in the first place, while the authorities didn’t consider her needs before they relocated her. In addition, the court proposed that Ecuador’s Ministry of the Environment create new legislation and procedures to better uphold wild animals’ constitutional rights moving forward.
In its 7-2 ruling, the court wrote: "The domestication and humanization of wild animals are phenomena that have a great impact on the maintenance of ecosystems and the balance of nature, as they cause the progressive decline of animal populations."
Although it is considered a groundbreaking ruling, it is not the first time that an Ecuadorian court has ruled in favor of nature. In 2008, it became the first country in the world to officially recognize the rights of nature at the constitutional level; Estrellita’s case was the first to apply this law to wild animals. A landmark ruling in the country last year found that mining activities in a protected cloud forest were a violation of the rights of nature.
Ecuadorian environmental lawyer Hugo Echeverria stated: “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. The court has stated that animals are subject of rights, protected by rights of nature.”
It is important to note that the ruling does not equate animals to human beings. However, it does extend them the rights to “exist, flourished and evolve” within the context of ecological processes such as predation and other biological interactions between species.
Harvard University law professor Kristen Stilt told the media: “What makes this decision so important is that now the rights of nature can be used to benefit small groups or individual animals. That makes rights of nature a far more powerful tool than perhaps we have seen before.”
The court also noted that animals have an individual value that is not related to their usefulness to human beings and that “wild species and their individuals have the right not to be hunted, fished, captured, collected, extracted, kept, retained, trafficked, traded or exchanged.”
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