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 persons 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 often assumed to be found in the execution of a pig in 1266 at Fontenay-aux-Roses. Newer research, however, suggests that this reading might be mistaken and no trial took place in that particular incident. Notwithstanding this controversy, 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 the animals 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
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.
Katya the Bear
Katya the Bear is a female brown bear native to Kazakhstan who was imprisoned in 2004 after being found guilty of mauling two people in separate incidents. Katya was held in the Arkalyk Prison in Kostanay. The bear was released from imprisonment and allowed to congregate with other bears after serving a fifteen-year sentence. Handlers report Katya socializing well with other bears after her long imprisonment.
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, and the appeal was rejected on April 23, 2018.
According to local folklore, a monkey was hanged in Hartlepool, England. During the Napoleonic Wars, a French ship was wrecked in a storm off the coast of Hartlepool. The only survivor from the ship was a monkey, allegedly dressed in a French army uniform to provide amusement for the crew. On finding the monkey on the beach, some locals decided to hold an impromptu trial; since the monkey was unable to answer their questions and because they had seen neither a monkey nor a Frenchman before, they concluded that the monkey must be a French spy. Being found guilty, the animal was sentenced to death and was hanged on the beach. The colloquial name for the resident people of Hartlepool is "monkey hanger".
Jacques Ferron was a Frenchman who was tried and hanged in 1750 for copulation with a jenny (female donkey). The trial took place in the commune of Vanves and Ferron was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. In cases such as these it was usual that the animal would also be sentenced to death, but in this case the she-ass was acquitted. The court decided that the animal was a victim and had not participated of her own free will. A document, dated 19 September 1750, was submitted to the court on behalf of the she-ass that attested to the virtuous nature of the animal. Signed by the parish priest and other principal residents of the commune it proclaimed that "they were willing to bear witness that she is in word and deed and in all her habits of life a most honest creature."
In popular culture
- In Lewis Carroll's humorous 1876 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.
- Julian Barnes describes a trial against a woodworm in his 1989 book A History of the World in 10½ Chapters.
- The 1993 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.)
- In Olga Tokarczuk's 2009 novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, the main protagonist writes to police using historical examples of animal trials to justify her theory that animals are responsible for recent local murders.
- The 2013 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.
- Cohen 1986, p. 7
- Frank, Colin (2021). "The pig that was not convicted of homicide, or: The first animal trial that was none". Global Journal of Animal Law. 9.
- 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.
- "Brown Bear Released from 15-Year Prison Life in a Human Jail, to Live in Zoo Now". News18. 18 November 2019.
- Stewart, Will (17 November 2019). "Brown bear serving prison sentence in human jail for GBH released after 15 years". mirror.
- 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.
- "The Hartlepool Monkey, Who hung the monkey?". This is Hartlepool. Retrieved 2010-09-29.
- Maconie, Stuart (2008), Pies and Prejudice: In search of the North, Ebury Press, ISBN 978-0091910235 (p. 300-301)
- Evans 1987, pp. 150–151.
- Potts, Malcolm; Short, Roger Valentine (1999). Ever since Adam and Eve: the evolution of human sexuality. Cambridge University Press. p. 110. ISBN 978-0-521-64404-4.
- Ford, Beach, C.S, F.A. Patterns of Sexual Behaviour. Taylor & Francis. p. 153.
- Costlow, Nelson, Jane, Amy (2010). Other Animals: Beyond the Human in Russian Culture and History. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-8229-6063-8.
- 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