In late 2021, The Brooks McCormick Jr. Animal Law & Policy Program at Harvard Law School (ALPP) and the Nonhuman Rights Project jointly filed an amicus curiae brief with the Constitutional Court of Ecuador, urging it to recognize that nonhuman animals can have legal rights after it decided to take up the issue of nonhuman animals’ legal status in response to a case involving a woolly monkey. In a landmark ruling, the Court has done so.
The ruling not only elevates the legal status of nonhuman animals under Ecuador’s constitutional rights of nature but also requires that new legislation be drafted to protect the rights of animals.
On March 24th at 12:45 p.m. ET, NhRP President Steven M. Wise will discuss this exciting news in a panel discussion as part of Harvard Law School’s Animal Law Week 2022. The panel discussion is virtual and open to the public. Register here. Also on the panel are leading Ecuadorian environmental lawyer Hugo Echeverría, who brought the case to the attention of the NhRP, and Professor Kristen Stilt and Research Fellow Macarena Montes of the ALPP.
As reported on by The New Statesman (“Could Happy the elephant follow an Ecuadorian monkey into legal personhood?”), this ruling is a huge step forward in the global struggle for nonhuman rights, and we hope and expect fundamental legal change for animals in the United States isn’t far behind. In February, we sent a letter to the New York Court of Appeals to inform them of the ruling and encourage them to take it into consideration in our elephant client Happy’s case. Later this year, as explored in recent stories in The Atlantic and The New Yorker, the New York Court of Appeals will become the highest English-speaking court to hear arguments in support of nonhuman rights.
The court’s ruling was the result of a habeas corpus action filed by Ana Beatriz Burbano Proaño on behalf of Estrellita, a woolly monkey who had lived in her home for 18 years. Environmental authorities had forcibly seized the monkey on the grounds that possessing a “wild animal” is prohibited by Ecuador law. Estrellita died within a month of being relocated to a zoo.
Ecuador was the first country to include a rights of nature provision in its national Constitution. When the case came before Ecuador’s Constitutional Court, the judges elected to consider several issues, including: the scope of the country’s rights of nature provision; whether animals qualify as the subject of rights; and whether Estrellita’s rights were violated.
About the ruling and our brief
The Court found by a vote of seven to two that the scope of the rights of nature includes animals and thus animals are the subject of rights. The Court also indicated that habeas corpus could be an appropriate action for animals and that they may possess rights that derive from other sources in addition to the Constitution.
The court’s detailed ruling directly refers to the joint amicus curiae supporting Estrellita’s case submitted by Professor Kristen Stilt and Research Fellow Macarena Montes of the Brooks McCormick Jr. Animal Law & Policy Program at Harvard Law School (ALPP) and Steven M. Wise and Kevin Schneider of the NhRP, assisted by students Marianné Núñez Núñez and Raquel Cerezo Martínez, both of whom interned with NhRP through the Autonomous University of Barcelona’s Master’s Program in Animal Law and Society. The decision is available in both the original Spanish and an English translation we’ve prepared.
Our joint amicus brief asserted that the rights of nature should protect nonhuman animals, including individual animals such as Estrellita. It argued that even if the Court was mainly concerned with protection at the species level, species are made up of individual animals, and what happens to an individual animal can have an important impact on the species. It explained that it would be arbitrary to draw a line at a number of animals needed to count—2, 3, 4, 10? One should be enough. The Court accepted the brief’s arguments that challenged the traditional view that only ecosystems and species are protected by the rights of nature, not individuals.
In short, the ALPP and NhRP representatives urged the Court to determine that:
- Nonhuman animals can be subjects of rights.
- Writs of habeas corpus can be appropriate for nonhuman animals.
- Nonhuman animals are subjects of rights protected by the rights of nature.
The brief also requested that the relevant governmental entities create protocols to guarantee the rights of nonhuman animals under the rights of nature and habeas corpus.
More on the decision and its significance
The Constitutional Court of Ecuador warned that animals should not be protected only from an ecosystemic perspective or from a view that focuses on the needs of human beings, but mainly from a perspective that focuses on their individuality and intrinsic value (paragraph 79).
This becomes relevant because protecting only the species of animals—neglecting the protection of individual animals, which in turn make up the species—endangers a significant number of animals and fuels the idea of the possibility of extinction. Even in the case of animals whose species is not endangered, neglecting or failing to protect individuals also has an impact (paragraph 126).
The Court not only recognized animals as subjects of rights protected by the rights of nature, but also outlined the rights that apply to some or all animals. These include the:
- Right to exist (paragraph 111).
- Right not to be hunted, fished, captured, collected, extracted, kept, detained, trafficked, traded, or exchanged (paragraph 112).
- Right to the free development of their animal behavior (paragraph 112), which includes the right to behave according to their instinct, the innate behaviors of their species, and those learned and transmitted among the members of their population, and the right to freely develop their biological cycles, processes, and interactions (paragraph 113). Animals must be guaranteed sufficient space and social conditions to ensure the possibility of the free development of their animal behavior (paragraph 137).
- Right to freedom and good living (paragraph 119). Animals have the right to freedom of movement (paragraph 137).
- Right to food according to the species’ nutritional requirements (paragraph 119). Animals must have access to adequate food and water to maintain their health and strength (paragraph 137).
- Right to live in harmony (paragraph 119).
- Right to health (paragraph 119). Animals must be ensured adequate sanitary conditions to protect their health and physical integrity (paragraph 137).
- Right to a habitat (paragraph 119).
- Right to demand their rights from the competent authorities (paragraph 121).
- Right to physical, mental, and sexual integrity (paragraph 133).
- Right to live in an environment that is suitable for each species, with adequate shelter and resting conditions (paragraph 137).
- Right to life (paragraph 155). Animals must be ensured life in a violence-free environment, as well as an environment free from disproportionate cruelty, fear, and distress (paragraph 137).
Additionally, the Court noted that a wild animal’s rights to life, freedom, and integrity, among others, must be protected regardless of the claims, intentions, or desires of third parties. If the judges determine “that the deprivation or restriction of the freedom of a wild animal is unlawful, they must provide the most suitable alternative for the preservation of the life, freedom, integrity, and other related rights of the victim […]” (paragraph 173). The implication is that the environmental authority in Ecuador failed to meet this requirement by confining Estrellita in the Zoo. It is possible that the conditions in the Zoo contributed to her death.
Although the writ of habeas corpus was unavailable in Estrellita’s case due to her death, the Court stated that it can be an appropriate action to request the release of a wild animal depending on the circumstances of the case.
The Court explained that even though it has examined the rights of nature thus far in “action for protection” cases, which is a specific type of action in Ecuador, this does not mean that the action for protection is the only adequate action to protect the rights of nature or any of its elements, including animals. Therefore, the Court stated that judges must examine which action best suits the context and the claims of the case, suggesting that other actions may be adequate to protect the rights of nature, and animals, such as habeas corpus.
Additionally, the Constitutional Court of Ecuador ordered the Ministry of Environment to develop a protocol to assess the circumstances and needs of captive wild animals to guarantee their protection; the brief proposed this very idea. Furthermore, the Court ordered the Ombudsman and Congress to prepare and approve a bill on the rights of animals, based on the rights and principles developed in the ruling.
Why this decision is worth celebrating globally
In this time of catastrophic climate crisis and the sixth mass extinction of species, the Constitutional Court of Ecuador’s judgment constitutes one of the most important legal advances in the field of nonhuman rights and environmental law in recent years. Until this ruling, legal practitioners, scholars, and advocates have centered the protection of nature on ecosystems and species, not individuals. Moreover, much of the work on the rights of nature did not consider animals as rightsholders. The Court’s groundbreaking ruling advances the constitutional protection of animals—ranging from the level of species to the individual animal—with their own inherent value and needs.
Read further work on constitutional provisions related to animal protection by the Brooks McCormick Jr. Animal Law & Policy Program.