In legal history, an animal trial was the criminal trial of a non-human animal. Such trials are recorded as having taken place in Europe from the thirteenth century until the eighteenth. In modern times, it is considered in most criminal justice systems that non-human creatures lack moral agency and so cannot be held culpable for an act.
Historical animal trials
Animals, including insects, faced the possibility of criminal charges for several centuries across many parts of Europe. The earliest extant record of an animal trial is the execution of a pig in 1266 at Fontenay-aux-Roses. Such trials remained part of several legal systems until the 18th century. Animal defendants appeared before both church and secular courts, and the offences alleged against them ranged from murder to criminal damage. Human witnesses were often heard and in Ecclesiastical courts they were routinely provided with lawyers (this was not the case in secular courts, but for most of the period concerned, neither were human defendants). If convicted, it was usual for an animal to be executed, or exiled. However, in 1750, a female donkey was acquitted of charges of bestiality due to witnesses to the animal's virtue and good behaviour while her co-accused human was sentenced to death.
Translations of several of the most detailed records can be found in E.P. Evans' The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, published in 1906. Sadakat Kadri's The Trial: Four Thousand Years of Courtroom Drama (Random House, 2006) contains another detailed examination of the subject. Kadri shows that the trials were part of a broader phenomenon that saw corpses and inanimate objects also face prosecution; and argues that an echo of such rituals survives in modern attitudes towards the punishment of children and the mentally ill.
Commonly tried animals
Animals put on trial were almost invariably either domesticated ones (most often pigs, but also bulls, horses, and cows) or pests such as rats and weevils. Creatures that were suspected of being familiar spirits or complicit in acts of bestiality were also subjected to judicial punishment, such as burning at the stake, though few, if any, ever faced trial.
According to Johannis Gross in Kurze Basler Chronik (1624), in 1474 a rooster was put on trial in the city of Basel for "the heinous and unnatural crime of laying an egg", which the townspeople were concerned was spawned by Satan and contained a cockatrice.
In September 2015, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sued David Slater on behalf of a monkey named Naruto. The judge dismissed the case, ruling that the monkey did not have legal standing. PETA later appealed the ruling, the appeal was rejected on April 23rd 2018.
In popular culture
- The film The Hour of the Pig, released as The Advocate in the United States, centers on the prosecution of a homicidal pig. Several episodes reflect historical events, and its scriptwriters evidently consulted actual trial transcripts, though the plot revolves around a historical conceit - Colin Firth plays the pig's defence lawyer, but there is no recorded instance of a lawyer representing an animal charged with murder. (There are several cases, by contrast, where lawyers appeared for creatures in ecclesiastical courts - and several rats and beetles, for example, won famous court victories as a result.)
- Julian Barnes describes a trial against a woodworm in his book A History of the World in 10½ Chapters.
- In Lewis Carroll's humorous poem The Hunting of the Snark the Barrister dreams about the trial of a pig accused of deserting its sty. In the musical adaptation this features as the song The Pig Must Die.
- The visual novel adventure video game Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies offers an additional court case as downloadable content, where the protagonist defends an orca accused of murder.
- In an episode of Tom and Jerry Tom is beheaded for failing to keep the mice away from the food.
- In the book Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (as well as its film adaptation) the hippogriff Buckbeak is sentenced to be decapitated for causing Draco Malfoy a minor injury. During the story's climax, Harry Potter and Hermione Granger manage to free Buckbeak.
- Cohen 1986, p. 7
- Srivastava, Anila. (March 1, 2007) "Mean, dangerous, and uncontrollable beasts": Mediaeval Animal Trials. Volume 40, issue 1, page 127. Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature.
- Evans 1987[page needed]
- E.V., Walter (1985). "Nature on Trial: The Case of the Rooster That Laid an Egg". Comparative Civilizations Review. 10 (10). ISSN 0733-4540. Retrieved 2 April 2018.
- Randazzo, Sara (April 23, 2018). "Copyright Protection for Monkey Selfie Rejected by U.S. Appeals Court". The Wall Street Journal. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 24 April 2018.
- Cohen, Esther (1986), "Law, Folklore and Animal Lore", Past and Present, Oxford University Press, 110: 6, doi:10.1093/past/110.1.6.
- Evans, E. P. (1987) , The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, Faber and Faber, ISBN 978-0-571-14893-6.
- The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (1906) at the Internet Archive
- ""The Law is an Ass: Reading E. P. Evans' The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals"" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-07-27. (1.18 MB), Society and Animals, Volume 2, Number 1 (1994)
- ""The Historical and Contemporary Prosecution and Punishment of Animals"" (PDF). (178 KB) (2003)
- Nicholas Humphrey, ""Bugs and Beasts Before the Law"" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-06-29. (120 KB), Chapter 18 of The Mind Made Flesh, pp. 235–254, Oxford University Press (2002)
- Animals on Trial (MP3), BBC World Service documentary podcast, broadcast on 15 March 2011
- Bugs and Beast Before the Law in The Public Domain Review