Putting Animals On Trial For Their Crimes

Brittany H. (CC BY 2.0)

Brittany H. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

May we hold animals accountable for their actions in a court of law? Via Maisonneuve, Drew Nelles on the surprisingly widespread historical practice, including the lynching of an elephant, the excommunication of a swarm of locusts, and much more:

“If an ox gore a man or a woman, that they die: then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten,” reads Exodus 21:28. Note that the ox is executed by stoning, much like an adulterer or Sabbath-breaker would have been.

Exodus 21:28 is a biblical law like any other, and as with similar Old Testament passages about slavery and sodomy, these few short words inspired hundreds of years of human behaviour that now appear horrifying. In Medieval Europe, they gave rise to the animal trial: the practice of dragging a creature accused of committing a crime—like killing a child or destroying a crop—before an actual court of law, and subsequently executing, exiling or absolving it.

As outlined in E.P. Evans’ comprehensive 1906 work The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, there were two kinds of animal trials during the Middle Ages: criminal proceedings against domestic creatures accused of individual crimes, and ecclesiastical tribunals to prosecute whole groups of vermin. The latter targeted animals like mice, locusts, weevils and caterpillars for such transgressions as ruining harvests or eating food stores.

Ever the opportunists, some lawyers built their careers by defending animals. A sixteenth-century French jurist named Bartholomew Chassenée made his name as the counsel to some rats who were accused, in an ecclesiastical trial in Autun, of decimating the area’s barley crops. Like numerous lawyers before and since, he built his argument on technicalities: the defendants couldn’t be expected to appear in court, as Evans says, “owing to the unwearied vigilance of their mortal enemies, the cats, who watched all their movements, and, with fell intent, lay in wait for them at every corner and passage.”

Read the rest at Maisonneuve.

16 Comments on "Putting Animals On Trial For Their Crimes"

  1. I’m not sure the legal system has evolved much since the days of animal trials.

  2. Rex Vestri | Sep 16, 2012 at 2:01 pm |

    I’m all for putting animals on trial for their crimes!
    We can start with animals like Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld.

    • Jin The Ninja | Sep 17, 2012 at 7:44 pm |

      that list might total a couple thousand once we’re said and done. we can just feed them to the animals. i, for one, would love to watch hungry eels devour a man like in roman times…

  3. Anarchy Pony | Sep 16, 2012 at 2:42 pm |

    Well, they already put mentally handicapped people on trial, some of them probably understand what’s going on about as much as an animal would. 

  4. Liam_McGonagle | Sep 16, 2012 at 2:44 pm |

    Typical.  They prosecute some ancient ocelot whose only crime was crapping in the Duke’s pleasure garden and totally give the man-killing Bengal tiger a pass.

  5. Infvocuernos | Sep 16, 2012 at 5:24 pm |

    I’m really surprised nobody has pointed out the glaring hypocrisy of trying animals for human crimes; if we applied the same standards to actions we take against animals then we’d be in litigation forever.  Would all exterminators and butchers be on trial for genocide?  don’t put em on trial, just eat em. 

  6. I’m pretty sure this was referring to Ox that were suffering from rabies or something of the sort.   A lot of the Old Laws were in reference to health.

  7. there’s no end to man’s attempt to put nature under the rule of law
    never realizing that Nature has Her own tried and tested laws
    and that man’s attempts to subjugate Her are futile

  8. Silly and ‘backward’ as it is, it at least shows that they recognised animals as sentient decision makers.

    It was the ‘enlightenment’ of people like Descartes that first denied that, and why we have things like factory farming, mink in wire cages, and vivisection.

    When were animals better off?

  9. Matt Staggs | Sep 17, 2012 at 10:53 am |

    I’ve got a cat that I could easily charge with assault and battery.

  10. Rev. Good Hair | Sep 17, 2012 at 1:52 pm |

    “owing to the unwearied vigilance of their mortal enemies, the cats, who watched all their movements, and, with fell intent, lay in wait for them at every corner and passage.”

  11. BrendanBabbage | Sep 18, 2012 at 5:17 am |

    Deodand is the term.

    • Rev. Good Hair | Sep 18, 2012 at 8:16 am |

      Animals are not Deodands. The objects they may unrest in their activities are Deodands.

  12. Can animals plead insanity?

Comments are closed.