It is, on the whole, no longer possible for an animal to stand trial in the way they have done in history. Animals do not have personhood and under the law this then makes them objects. And objects cannot be on trial.
Dogs, especially, find themselves effectively in the position of the defendant without any of the legal protections. For example, dangerous dogs, regardless of why they are dangerous, are often condemned to death. There are dogs which are killed, simply for being born a particular breed.
In America at least, cases where animals are shot in retaliation for crimes tend not to see the guilty human punished. This is the case even when the threat is not immediate, for example in a case in Georgia where a dog have mauled a child, the father killed the dog eleven days later. He was found not guilty of animal cruelty. We desire revenge from animals and justify our killing and harming of them because of this. Is this much different to the medieval trials which aimed to restore order through punishment?
That said, animals do receive legal protection under today’s laws. The United Kingdom was the first country in the world to implement laws protecting animals. In 1822 an Act to Prevent the Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle was passed by Parliament. In 1911, the Protection of Animals Act came in which saw more general protections and has been updated since. Much more recently, in 2007 the Animal Welfare Act replaced the Protection of Animals Act. There are a collection of other, more specific laws which aim to protect the welfare of animals, such as the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animal Act and the 1960 Abandoment of Animals Act. The development of these laws shows how our relationship with animals has changed over the last 100 years or so.
The law is a continually developing beast and in America, a lawyer argued that two specific chimpanzees should be granted personhood. A few months ago the court found against the chimps but the case is just one part of decades of work in this area. Because American law can vary state by state, they are now looking to see if other states might be more open to the idea.
Along with animal cruelty, the area of illegal pets and illegal pet trade are probably one of the most important aspects of pet related law. Other laws such as those around hunting and farming are also both vital for protecting the welfare of animals and also, from a sociological perspective, in seeing what we value and how our relationship with non-pet animals differs.
I’m going to be looking in more detail at the illegal pet trade as well as hunting in the next few posts.