In a landmark legal case believed to be the first in any nation, Ecuador’s High Court has ruled that a wild woolly monkey called Estrellita possessed distinct legal rights, including to exist, develop her innate instincts and be free from disproportionate cruelty, fear, and distress. She was taken from the wild when she was one month old and kept as a pet by Ana Beatriz Burbano Proaño for 18 years. As possessing a wild animal is illegal under Ecuadorian law the authorities seized Estrellita in 2019, relocating her to a zoo where she died a few weeks later.

The judges found that Estrellita’s rights had been violated by both Burbano and the government.  Firstly by Burbano removing Estrellita from the wild and keeping her in conditions not suitable for preserving her natural integrity. Secondly by Government officials removing her without any consideration of Estrellita’s particular circumstances or whether transferring her to a zoo was most appropriate. The court said that the conditions of the zoo, together with the trauma of being separated from her known living conditions, could have contributed to her death.

The court said that “Wild animals 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 behaviour, which includes the guarantee of not being domesticated and not forced to assimilate human characteristics or appearances.”

Kristen A. Stilt, a Harvard law professor and Faculty Director of the school’s Brooks McCormick Jr. Animal Law and Policy Program, said to Inside Climate News: “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.”

Ecuador was the first country in the world to give rights to Nature thanks to its new constitution approved in 2008. The Constitutional Court had already ruled in December 2021 that a mining exploration project in a protected forest had to be blocked because it violated the rights of nature. Other countries have followed suit, such as Colombia, Bolivia, New Zealand, and Bangladesh. But it is believed this is the first time that a court has applied this right to a particular wild animal, as opposed to an ecosystem or a species. This is good news for animal rights advocates, as for them what matters the most are individual animals. 

Jordi Casamitjana
“Originally from Catalonia, but resident in the UK for several decades, Jordi is a vegan zoologist and author, who has been involved in different aspects of animal protection for many years. In addition to scientific research, he has worked mostly as an undercover investigator, animal welfare consultant, and animal protection campaigner. He has been an ethical vegan since 2002, and in 2020 he secured the legal protection of all ethical vegans in Great Britain from discrimination in a landmark employment tribunal case that was discussed all over the world. He is also the author of the book, ‘Ethical Vegan: a personal and political journey to change the world’.