By Liam Higgins
In a case being followed closely by animal rights advocates around the world, Ecuador’s Constitutional Court has agreed to consider the rights of Estrellita, a chorongo monkey. Estrellita was taken from her owners in Quito last year and placed in a zoo where she died a month later.
The court will consider whether the rights of nature recognized in Ecuador’s constitution also apply to animals. Under current law, all animals, both wild and domestic, are considered personal property.
One question the court has agreed to consider is whether animals taken from the wild can access habeas corpus protection.
Environmental lawyer Hugo Echeverría says that the issue of illegal possession by the owners will not be part of Estrellita’s case. “There is a deeper question here in terms of analyzing the legal categorization of animals in Ecuador,” he says. “The question is whether or not animals are part of nature and protected by our constitution. To us, the logical answer is yes.”
Estrellita was taken from the jungle when she was a month old following the death of her mother, her owners say. The owners trained her to dress, eat at the dinner table and sleep in a bed. She was taken from her owners and put in a zoo by the government based on the law that monkeys cannot be held in captivity. “We are not dealing with Estrellita’s removal by the government per se, since it confuses the larger issue of the rights of nature,” says Echeverría. “Nature is where life is lived and reproduced and the question before the court is if the creatures within nature are protected.”
In November, a lower court judge rejected the case, calling it an “an unnecessary waste of resources in the administration of justice” and called Estrellita an “inert thing.” The judge also said a ruling could confuse domestic animals with wild animals.
Although Echeverría says many of the isssues in the original case are not pertinent to the Constitutional Court case, he says he will continue the claim of Estrellita’s owners that she should have had habeas corpus rights. The attorney says he will cite cases showing the inconsistency in legal protection for animals, including a Colombian case in which a court denied a habeas corpus request for a bear because it could not provide a legal signature. “Obviously, wild animals have other ways of indicating their identity and requiring them to conform to artificial human constructs is absurd,” he said.
Pablo Alarcón, constitutional scholar and director of the Graduate School of Law at the Universidad Espíritu Santo in Quito considers Estrellita’s case legitimate. “Some people call it frivolous but it is a case that demands examination of Ecuador’s constitutional language guaranteeing the rights of nature,” he says. “As long this is in the constitution the question of what constitutes nature can’t be ignored.”
According to Alarcón, the aim of the case is not to personify animals, but to “de-objectify them and establish that they are beings that have rights and deserve dignity.” Ultimately, he says, the court must consider animal rights in relation to human rights.
Among the international parties following the case is the Harvard Law School Animal Law and Policy Program and its Non Humans Right Project. Harvard says it plans to file an amicus curiae brief.