Animal Law & Policy Program files amicus brief concerning nonhuman animals’ legal status

A woolly monkey in a tree along a river in the Amazon Rainforest

Credit: iStock/zysman

With the Constitutional Court of Ecuador set to rule for the first time on the question of nonhuman animals’ legal status, The Brooks McCormick Jr. Animal Law & Policy Program at Harvard Law School (ALPP) and the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) have jointly filed an amicus curiae brief with the Court, urging it to recognize that nonhuman animals can have legal rights.

“In this time of catastrophic climate crisis and the sixth mass extinction of species, Ecuador is a regional and world leader in developing and protecting the rights of nature and this case presents an opportunity to deepen that reputation,” the ALPP and the NhRP write in the brief. “The case is also novel and important for the development of habeas corpus and its application to nonhuman animals in Ecuador, Latin America, and globally.”

The Constitutional Court decided to take up the issue of nonhuman animals’ legal status in response to a habeas corpus case involving a woolly monkey named Estrellita. Drawing on the authors’ shared expertise and interest in the consideration of nonhuman animals’ legal status, the brief argues that habeas corpus can apply to nonhuman animals, that individual nonhuman animals have rights under the rights of nature framework adopted in the Ecuadorian Constitution, and that the Court should order the relevant governmental entities to create protocols to guarantee the rights of nonhuman animals, whether derived under the rights of nature or directly through access to the writ of habeas corpus.

The brief points to the scientific evidence of the cognitive and social complexity of woolly monkeys and argues that they “should at minimum possess 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.”

Estrellita was poached from the wild when she was one month old and lived as the private pet of Ana Burbano for nearly two decades. In 2019, authorities seized Estrellita and relocated her to the San Martín de Baños Zoo under a law passed in 2017 that bans private individuals from breeding, keeping, buying, or selling exotic or native wildlife. Estrellita died in quarantine in the zoo and Burbano filed a habeas corpus petition on Estrellita’s behalf. The lower court and the Court of Appeals denied the request for habeas relief. The ALPP and NhRP as amicus authors affirm that individuals should not keep wild animals as pets but take the position that habeas corpus should be available to a woolly monkey such as Estrellita so that, through a representative, she could have challenged her detention in a zoo or other confinement before she died.

Ecuador is the first country in the world to recognize the rights of nature at the constitutional level. On Dec. 2, in what is being hailed as a landmark ruling, the Constitutional Court prohibited mining in the Los Cedros Protected Forest under the rights of nature.