World’s first country to grant legal rights to individual wild animals

(ORDO NEWS) — While some countries struggle to uphold human rights, Ecuador has gone one step further and has ruled that wild animals have separate legal rights, including the right to exist.

The court decision, passed 7-2 in February, was a landmark interpretation of the country’s constitutional “rights of nature” laws and raised the legal status of non-human animals.

“Natural rights sounds like an idea in America, but people don’t realize how widespread it is all over the world,” Kristen Stilt, an animal rights expert, told Inside Climate News.

The ruling arose from the unfortunate case of a woolly monkey named Estrellita. After Estrellita was illegally taken from the wild, at the age of one month she came to the librarian Ana Beatriz Burbano Proagno and her family, where she lived for the next 18 years.

During this time, she learned to communicate with them through gestures and sounds and adopted the customs of the family.

Estrellita was then confiscated by local authorities, and a month after being moved to the zoo, she suffered a sudden cardiac arrest, where she died.

Even before her death was known, Burbano filed a lawsuit to bring back Estrellita, citing that Estrellita was probably stressed out being so suddenly cut off from everything she knew.

The case used scientific evidence on the cognitive and social complexity of woolly monkeys (Lagothrix sp.) to argue that Estrellita “should, at a minimum, have the right to bodily freedom” and “environmental authorities should have protected Estrellita’s rights by examining her specific circumstances before than put her in a zoo.”

The court ruled that both the authorities and Burbano violated Estrellita’s rights: the former for not taking into account her special needs before resettlement, and the latter for removing her from the wild altogether.

The Court has proposed the development of new legislation to better enforce these rights in the future.

“The domestication and humanization of wild animals are phenomena that have a great impact on the maintenance of ecosystems and natural balance, as they cause a gradual decline in animal populations,” the court acknowledged in its decision.

The decision follows a landmark ruling last year in Ecuador that found that mining in the protected cloud forest violates the rights of nature.

Ecuador became the first country in the world to recognize the rights of nature at the constitutional level back in 2008.

“While the rights of nature were enshrined in the constitution, prior to this decision it was not clear whether individual animals could enjoy the rights of nature and be considered rights holders as part of nature,” Ecuadorian environmental lawyer Hugo Echeverría explained in a statement. “The Court stated that animals are subjects of rights protected by the rights of nature.”

Countries such as New Zealand and Canada, as well as other provinces and some cities in the United States, have treaties, regulations or local laws that provide similar protection to wild animals.

However, countries have yet to enshrine such rights at the constitutional level, and in many places around the world attempts to protect nature remain life-threatening.

The ruling makes it clear that these rights to “exist, thrive and evolve”, however, are in the context of ecological processes that involve biological interactions between species, such as predation. They do not equate animals with humans, but still grant them the right to freedom in the context of ecological interactions.

This means that hunting, fishing, gathering and forestry are still permitted as long as they are carried out within the framework of other pre-existing laws – for example, not contrary to endangered species laws – and carried out in ways that limit suffering.

“Generally, environmental law doesn’t deal with animals that aren’t considered important species, such as endangered species under the US Endangered Species Act,” says Stilt. “A revision is underway that is breaking down the boundaries between animal law and environmental law, and this case is an important part of that development.”

Building bridges between the two realms recognizes how interconnected our world is. After all, it only takes one bad encounter with a wild animal to start a pandemic, or the destruction of a few key individuals to wipe out an entire vulnerable species.

The climate crisis and the six mass extinctions are inextricably linked to each other and to our attitudes and actions towards the life with which we share our planet.

So in a world where environmental destruction touches many of us personally, such laws can help us, as individuals and as societies, make better choices that benefit us all.

“These laws have already proven to be an important legal tool for the protection of nature, including animals,” Stilt concluded.

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