Yes, if your dog attacks someone it can bring legal consequences. People even have been jailed when their loose dogs kill a human. But can dogs or other animals go on trial? Do animal trials really exist?
Maybe not today, at least in a formal sense, but animal trials are believed to have been common in Europe in the Middle Ages. These are also known as Medieval times, which ran from the 5th Century to the 15th Century.
Since it was so long ago, historical records are sketchy and perhaps unreliable. But evidence does point to animal trials actually happening in the distant past.
Big animals, especially, had their day in court when they inflicted harm on humans. In fact, have you heard of the herds of pigs where murder most foul occurred?
Such a case is believed to have happened in 1379. It involved three pigs who got agitated among two herds of pigs feeding together. The three pigs reportedly charged the son of the swine master, killing him.
A trial was held for all of the pigs from each of the herds, and all were condemned to die. However, each pig except for the three attacking pigs was found to be an accomplice and was pardoned. No such luck for the three killer pigs.
Remember: Back in those days, farms were more common and animals outnumbered machines. Critters roamed the streets, and children often played in the fields. Human-animal interaction was common — even casual — but sometimes humans paid a price.
As the pig case showed, larger animals such as pigs, bulls, horses and cows were most likely to face secular tribunals which could hand down capital punishments for homicide. Such animals might be executed in grisly ways.
Similarly, even in more modern times, dogs or other animals which kill humans may be euthanized, not so much as a punishment but to remove a potential threat.
In 2008, a public parks’ bear in Macedonia was convicted of stealing a beekeeper’s honey, with the parks service fined $3,500 in damages. And in 1916, an elephant which killed her trainer was hanged with a crane in Tennessee.
Animals also have been executed before a crime even was committed. In May of 2016, when a small boy fell into a gorilla pit at the Cincinnati Zoo, a Western Lowland gorilla was shot dead on the spot to safeguard against him injuring or killing the boy.
In the Middle Ages, smaller critters such as rats, mice, locusts and weevils were more apt to be tried by ecclesiastical courts than secular tribunals. These trials were for the crime of devouring crops. The creatures were formally expelled from fields, orchards and vineyards by excommunication or even by exorcism.
While these religious dictates did not necessarily remove the pests, they did remove the stigma of humans exterminating some of God’s creatures, no matter how small, and no matter the offense.
Indeed, after rats or other vermin had been excommunicated or denounced by a church tribunal, they were fair game for slaughter with no guilt attached. The lucky ones were simply exiled — caught and released elsewhere.
A record of 200 animal trials can be found in the 1906 book The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, by E.P. Evans.
One case in the 1480s involved the Cardinal Bishop of Autun in France ruling against slugs which had despoiled estate grounds under his supervision. He ordered three daily processions in which slugs were commanded to leave or be cursed. After that, exterminating these “God’s creatures” was permissible.
Other cases involved a pig who was burned in public in Fontenay-aux-Roses, near Paris, in 1266 for mutilating a child. Another pig was sentenced in 1386 to be mangled and maimed and then hanged for attacking a child.
Should we believe these or other such accounts? One lawyer, at least, would say no. A notorious tale of rats on trial may have been a fanciful invention, made up to cast a bad light on the lawyer who reportedly defended the vermin.
Jim Adler & Associates does not defend rats — or anyone. We are a plaintiffs’ law firm.
That means we stand for justice when human beings are injured by anyone who’s at fault. These tend to be individual companies or persons — perhaps the owners of attacking dogs, rather than the animals themselves. But with our help, justice can be served, just the same.