The Fascinating History of Animals on Trial

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Goat in a bow and tie

If you’ve ever caught your beloved pet gnawing away at your favourite pair of shoes, you might have searched their face for tell-tale signs of guilt, but you’d never consider reporting them to the police to face charges of malicious damage!

But centuries ago in Europe, the criminal justice system didn’t just apply people, but animals as well.

Back then, it was a popularly held view that animals should face the consequences of their sinful acts, and many unfortunate critters found themselves inside courthouses, both religious and secular.

From flies and caterpillars to field-mice, rats, dogs and bulls, all kinds of animals have faced criminal charges; but the most common defendants were “filthy, slothful pigs”.

Animal defendants were treated in much the same way as their human counterparts – they could face anything from official warning letters to the death penalty. Some were even tortured on the rack.

Animals were even kept in the same prisons as humans, and could be released on bail pending trial, if lucky.

Many were even allowed to have criminal defence lawyers – a right not extended in England to humans until 1836. In fact, one distinguished French jurist in the 1500s specialised in defending rats accused of “feloniously eat[ing] up and wantonly destroy[ing]” barley crops.

Here are a few examples of animals on trial:

The murderous pig, France 1386

A sow and her piglets were brought to trial for murdering a French child in 1386. The mother pig was brought to court dressed in human clothes, and her whole family were found guilty of the heinous crime.

Although the mother was executed, her piglets were granted leniency due to their youth and vulnerability at the hands of their manipulative mum.

Evil rooster who laid an egg, Switzerland, 1474

One poor rooster had the misfortune of being accused of laying an egg!

His “heinous and unnatural crime” would lead to the death sentence, and the poor bird was publicly burnt alive in front of a large crowd of chanting townspeople and peasants.

Wicked weevils 1545, France

Wine-growers in Bordeaux were angered by the fact that a group of weevils were devouring their prized grapes.

They brought the matter to the attention of authorities, who brought the weevils before an ecclesiastical court.

The weevils were appointed a lawyer named Claude Morel, who argued that God made plants for all animals to consume, not just humans, and that they weevils were just doing what came natural to them.

The argument worked to an extent – rather than executing the hapless animals, the ecclesiastical judge ordered that public prayers be held.

Another plague of weevils returned 30 years later, and the little critters were subjected to a lengthy trial involving some of the greatest legal minds of the day.

Unfortunately, we will never know their fate as the page of the archives that recorded the verdict has been destroyed. Edmund Payson Evans, a prominent writer on the subject of animal trials, has suggested that the page may have been eaten by weevils who were unhappy about the verdict.

Donkey accused of having sex with a man, France, 1750

Having sex with animals, also known as bestiality, has been a crime for hundreds of years. In centuries gone by, the act was punishable by death – for both humans and animals.

In 1750, a French man was sentenced to death for having sexual intercourse with a female donkey. The donkey was acquitted after neighbours gave character evidence that they had known her for four years, and that she was virtuous and well-behaved. According to their character references, the donkey was never involved in any scandal, and was “in word and deed and in all her habits of life a most honest creature.”

It was found that the donkey did not participate voluntarily, and she was acquitted on that basis.

Animals trials in Australia

Animals are not deemed to be capable of committing criminal offences in modern-day Australia.

But a goat named Gary did make it into court in 2013. Gary’s owner, Jimbo Bazoobi, was issued with a $440 infringement notice after Gary allegedly ate flowers outside the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney.

Although Gary was not in trouble, he accompanied his owner to Downing Centre Local Court for moral support after Jimbo appealed the fine. Gary spared no expense for the occasion, donning a colourful hat and black bowtie.

In the end, Gary and Jimbo were triumphant – their lawyer successfully argued that the offence of destroying vegetation had to be committed by humans, not their animals. The infringement notice was declared invalid and the overjoyed pair headed happily home.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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