Animals and the law in the 21st Century

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.

Putting cats on trial: animals in the law court

I love this area of history.  I devoured a thesis all about it and numerous articles and videos and wow!  There is limited information available because records get destroyed and lost and such things but we know of almost 200 cases of animals being tried in court.  These are predominately European and a large number are based in France but we can’t really conclude much from this about the frequency of such trials.  Record keeping will have differed depending on time and location and at least some records have been intentionally destroyed as a way of ridding the community of the memories of the heinous crimes involved.

In terms of what follows, this is down to what historians have found documented so actual practices may have been going on longer.

All the way back in ancient Greece, it was theoretically possible to put an animal on trial for murder.  There is no evidence that this occurred but the concept fits with the Greek approach to murder trials with a human offender.  The belief was that crime polluted the community and as such murder trials, the most heinous crime, had to be tried outside so that the pollution from the trial wasn’t trapped in the court room.  Human and animal like, if found guilty, would not only be executed but their body had to be removed from the community so that it did not continue to pollute the community.  Plato wrote:

If a beast of draught or other animal cause homicide, except in the case when the deed is done by a beast competing in one of the public sports, the kinsmen shall institute proceedings for homicide against the slayer; on conviction, the beast shall be put to death and cast out beyond the frontier.

Spring forward 1000 years or so and in 824AD, a group of moles was prosecuted and excommunicated by the church.  This was an ecclesiastical trial and would have been taken just as seriously as the secular cases in Ancient Greece.

But 824 is a very long time ago so it’s easy to dismiss the idea of moles on trial as something that uneducated people did back in the first millennium.  So lets fast forward again.

This time, we’re in France, in a town near Normandy and the year is 1386.  A child has died, a cruel and painful death, bought about through the killer mangling their face and arms.  This is a criminal offence and a trial must go ahead, punishment must be carried out.  So the female killer is tried and found guilty.  Her sentence? Execution.  But only after the treatment she gave her victim is inflicted on her.  So she is maimed in her head and arms and then hanged. The professional hangman carries this out in a public square and was issued new gloves for the occasions “in order that he might come from the discharge of his duty, metaphorically at least, with clean hands, thus indicating that, as a minister of justice, he incurred no guilt in shedding blood.” (E P Evans).  The execution is commemorated in a fresco on the wall of a local church.  The killer is a pig.  And she is given human clothing for her execution.

But fear not, extenuating circumstances are taken into consideration.  For example in 1457, another pig, along with her six piglets, were caught killing a five year old boy.  The (pig) mother was found guilty and hanged but despite evidence of their involvement, the piglets were pardoned due to their youth and the bad influence of their mother.

In 1906, Evans, a key writer on this topic, had detailed over 191 prosecutions and excommunications of animals between the 9th and 20th centuries.  This list is considered to be far from complete due to incomplete record keeping and destruction of records in the middle ages.  We do know however, that these were not the whim of a geographical area – the church tried cases across the world including Ethiopia, Scandinavia, Canada, Brazil, Turkey and Spain.  In particular, cases involving bestiality were destroyed to erase the unthinkable crime.

We do still have some records of bestiality including an interesting case in 1750.  A man and a donkey were accused of the crime and the standard punishment was a death sentence.  They were tried and both found guilty, the man was killed.  But the donkey had an advocate.  A priest provided the court with evidence that she had always been virtuous and well behaved and the donkey was let off, being decreed a victim of violence and an unwilling participant.

These cases, the pigs and the donkey, were carried out in civil and criminal courts because the animals had been involved in physical injury and death.  If found guilty, the punishment was often death and this could be through hanging, being burned alive, stoned, beheaded and buried alive.  Less lethal punishments were doled out though, for example a goat who had to go and live in exile and a dog which was placed in an iron cage in a market square, a punishment normally used for blasphemers and peace breakers.

For those crimes which were public nuisances, the church stepped in.  Ecclesiastical trials focused on things like destruction of crops and tended to try more vermin and non domesticated animals.  Defendants included mice, birds, snakes, snails, worms, termites and strangely also extended to include eels and dolphins.

In 1587 weevils were accused of damaging a vineyard but at trial were deemed to be exercising their natural right to eat.  As compensation, they were given their own vineyard.

Whilst this might sound silly and trivial to us today, we have evidence that these cases were treated seriously.  The proceedings strictly followed those of human defendants with defence lawyers provided, complex legal arguments raised and in some cases, the defendant was kept in jail whilst awaiting trial (in some cases alongside humans).  Evidence was presented and judgement was made after heavily weighing up the arguments.  A lot of time went into this overseeing of the law as well as money, the cost will have been equivalent to that of trying humans.  In one weevil case, the land offered as an alternative was deemed unsuitable by the defence lawyer and a professional report into the suitability of the soil was carried out.  As with human trials, animal trials could be appealed if the outcome was unfavourable.  Learning that the animals, once killed, could not be eaten or used in other ways, reiterates the seriousness with which this was taken.  In the example of the pig and piglets, to think about killing seven pigs and not benefiting in terms of food or resources would have been a huge sacrifice when food was not plentiful.

We can also see the sincerity of these trials by turning to a case from 1522.  A group of rats were on trial accused of destroying a barley crop.  The rats, as was normal in these cases, were appointed a lawyer (paid for by taxes) called Bartholomew Chassenee.  On the day of the trial, the rats failed to respond to the formal summons.  As a good lawyer, Chassenee argued that because the rats lived in different locations across several villages, a single summons would not have reached them all.  The court agreed and a second summons was read in the various villages.  The rats still did not turn up for their day in court but Chassenee now argued that it was down to the length and difficulty of the journey.  The court could not expect the rats to risk their lives with the cats they would encounter on the way.  This idea of ensuring safety to attend court is one which is still in play today.

Obviously, in most cases, the defendants fail to turn up to their court trial and by default, despite arguments made by lawyers, they lose.  The result is that they were excommunicated and told to leave.  One lovely example from 1519 shows some compassion from the judge.  Despite being found guilty of damaging crops, the moles were given a 14 day window to leave the area.  However, after this, every mole must be gone despite their age or maternity status!

The other reason a trial might be held is due to supernatural occurrences.  In 1477, a cockerel was executed because it was found guilty of laying an egg, something utterly unnatural and unsettling for the community.  This was during the witch trials when fear of anything out of the ordinary was rife.

Cats are well known as being witches familiars today but many other animals bore that badge as well.  Anything from toads to dogs to owls to hares could be considered familiars, or the witch herself shapeshifted into an animal form.  The reason that people were so concerned with familiars is firstly it indicated a witch, but also the familiar itself was considered to be the devil, or another evil spirit, in disguise.  I haven’t been able to find out a lot about how this played out in court but some snippets on the internet suggest that the familiars were tried alongside the witches and faced similar punishments.  I do know that many witches were identified because they had a familiar and the mark of a familiar (considered to be where they suckled from the witch) could condemn a woman.  In one case, a familiar, in this instance a lamb called Tiffin, had told her witch something critical to a case.  The witch then recounted this in court, thus making Tiffin an indirect witness and charges were made against two other women on the basis of this.

“Nothing was more common in those times than to bring a charge of witchcraft against animals”
– Victor Hugo, writing about the 15th century trial of Esmeralda’s goat

As animal trials cross cultures, countries and times, there are going to be different reasons why they were carried out but suggestions include retribution and revenge, making examples of the defendants (to deter humans from the same crimes or to influence behaviour of humans who own the animals) and a way of helping a community deal with an event.  It is helpful to remember that a lot of these trials were held during the witch trials and that the times were uncertain ones.  There was a great fear of lawlessness and the trials allowed communities to reinstate some sense of control and a way of domesticating the chaos.  For an animal to kill a human was to turn the world on its head.  It defied the natural way of things in which humans ate and killed animals, not the other way around.  This violated the hierarchical order of God and was a sign or symptom of disarray.  If the animal was not dealt with quickly, it would symbolise a success on the part of the revolting animals.

Whilst on the whole, animal trials are not something that happens today, we still prosecute and convict animals, we just tend do so without giving them a fair hearing.  For example, in 1986 villagers in Malaysia beat a dog to death because it was believed to be one of a gang of thieves, a human who could turn into a dog.  This killing without due process was something that was condemned back in the days of animal trials.  As such, when a man took matters into his own hands in 1576 in Germany, he was permanently banished from the community.

Useful links

Animals and the Human Law

It turns out the area of animals and the human laws is quite fascinating and has quite a history.  We have animals tried in human law courts, we have the exotic and illegal animal trade, there are certain breeds of dog which are illegal and…

It was something I stumbled onto quite accidentally when I was researching pets.  I went from pets to illegal dogs to illegal exotic animals and then suddenly found myself in a law court back in the 1400s!

In the next few posts I’m going to consider:

  • The history of animals being tried in human courts.
  • Modern day law and animals including the legal standing of animals.
  • The exotic pet trade.

Useful links

Does it matter if humans are animals or not?

Ultimately, we could debate language and definitions till the cows come home but does it matter? invites us to think about this in more depth:

We evolved within the community of life, and yet we humans often consider ourselves separate from nature. Are we unique? Is this distinction helpful? How do our ways of thinking of ourselves in relation to other life influence the identities we carry and actions we take? We invite you to share your reflections as we explore the relationship between humans and nature. Read a story, tell your own.

We are now entering, or are in, the sixth mass extinction event.  And unlike previous ones, this one is caused by the activities of humans.  Many plant and animal species have become extinct in just the last 50 years and many more are at risk.  We continue to endanger the natural world through habitat destruction, by alternating landscapes, by polluting water and by polluting the earth to name a few ways.  As an example, biodiversity in freshwater is estimated to have declined by 50% in the last twenty years.  Twenty years.  That’s 2/3rds of my life and it’s not even a dot on the timescales of the species that we are talking about.

Most people now accept that climate change is happening.  As I’m writing this, storm Irma has just hit Florida, swiftly on the back of hurricane Harvey.  There is so much we don’t know about climate change but we do know that weather patterns are changing.  Breeding patterns are changing.  Migration is affected.  Birds which stick to their migration times are arriving too late in their spring grounds and finding the food they rely on is gone.  Flowers have bloomed too early; the insects have emerged too soon and the birds must change too.  And those animals which depend on the birds?  They too must change and suddenly the world looks very different.

All the time that we cast ourselves in a superior role to animals, and to nature, we are distancing ourselves physically and psychologically and in turn it is easier not to consider what we are doing to the planet.  It’s easier to hurt something, to wipe out a species, if you don’t know it.  If you don’t know its name and if you don’t know anything about its way of life it is easier to destroy it.

As we’ve already seen, the way we talk about nature shapes our thoughts and feelings about nature and in turn shapes our actions.  We speak of having dominion over animals, we talk of the (monetary) value of nature and throughout this discussion are threads of colonialism, of occupation.  We lack respect for nature and this is reflected, and perpetuated, in how we speak of it.  We name things we value and we value the things we name.  This circular process keeps us trapped in a human centric world.  We cannot ever know the names of every living thing, but I do feel we need to make more of an effort.

A report from the Zoological Society of London found that British people have a better awareness of fantasy animals than the world’s most Evolutionary Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) species.  88% of participants had heard of unicorns, 78 % had heard of the Gruffalo but only 20% had heard of the critically endangered axolotl salamander, 19% of the fascinating dugong and 22.5% of the fabulous echidna.  I keep returning to the idea that if we do not know something’s name, we cannot truly care about it, or know it.  How many animals and plants are going to disappear because their names are not high profile?

The naming of things also means we find it hard to place value on the unnameable.  The powerfully, wonderfully, enchanting experience of having a butterfly land on your hand or the awe and smallness you feel when you stand by the sea in a storm.  These things can be described, unsatisfactorily, but have no name and thus get overlooked in our culture where name means value.

Wordsworth, and many many others, have implored us to “let nature be your teacher”.  But for us to truly engage with nature as student, we first must remove ourselves from our perspective of superiority.  To learn, one must first humble oneself and acknowledge that the teacher has wisdom which you would benefit from.  How can we do this when we see ourselves as ruling nature?  And what magical lessons are we missing because of this?

We are part of a web of life, we share the same planet, but it is easier to be selfish and to use up resources thoughtlessly if we see nature as other, if we see animals as mattering less than we do.  As part of that complex web, we are intimately connected to nature.  Arne Naess, an environmental philosopher, said because of this, to act as if we are separate and to abuse and mistreat nature is tantamount to abusing ourselves.  Instead of thinking of nature and animals as something separate from us, what would happen if we acknowledged our common ancestry and treated the natural world like family.  What if we thought of wolves as our sisters, as chimps as our brothers?  Surely, we would treat our siblings very differently to how we treat animals today?  And surely that relationship would be fruitful for both sides?  If we were to treat nature as we’d like to be treated, we’d “use” animals only as needed and we would consider their welfare and wellbeing when making those decisions.

In Healing the Divide, the authors discusses the artificial wall built to isolate humans from nature.  This physical and linguistic separation has allowed humans to view ourselves as separate to, and as masters of, nature.  This allows us to use nature as a resource for our pleasure, not just essential use.  To view ourselves as part of nature, they argue, would mean knocking down these boundaries, allowing species to live without human interference.  It would help restore the ecosystems that we have destroyed and as such, it would pave the way for a world where humans are part of the web of life, the cycle of energy, rather than a destroyer of it.  The way of the past has clearly not worked and thus, to move into a healthy future, we need to change our way of thinking and being:

“Viewing ourselves as separate from nature has proved disastrous for both humans and nature.”
– Healing the divide


If you’re interested in how language shapes our thinking about the environment, nature, animals etc, then have a look at the free online course, Stories We Live By.

Humans and animals: Are humans animals?

The area “humans and animals” is huge and has the potential to take me fumbling down many different rabbit holes.  This is one of the reasons why I’m dedicating a month to each area, at least for now.  Otherwise I think it would be very easy to turn round and realise I’ve spent a year looking at the relationship between humans and animals, or even a whole year just looking at why we differentiate ourselves.  Which brings me neatly onto my first rabbit warren.

Are humans animals?

I say yes, humans are animals.  But linguistic convention tends to separate us.  And how we speak of humans and animals informs how we think about them and what we believe about them.  Because of this, I find the OED definition of animals to be pertinent to this question:

1. A living organism which feeds on organic matter, typically having specialised sense organs and nervous system and able to respond rapidly to stimuli.
1.1. Any such living organism other than a human being.
1.2. A mammal, as opposed to a bird, reptile, fish, or insect.
1.3. A person without human attributes or civilising influences, especially someone who is very cruel, violent, or repulsive.

This definition is clearly distinguishing humans from animals and the final definition is working from the assumption that animals are lesser than humans, that they are “cruel, violent and, or, repulsive”.  But if we look at the etymology of the word animal, we find a more inclusive way of thinking.  Animal comes from the latin anima – breathe – and animalis – having breathe.

The field of ecolingustics is concerned with the stories we live by and how those stories affect our thoughts and, as a result, our behaviours.  To follow the definition of animal being one that does not include humans divides us.  The stories we tell ourselves, the stories our society tells, separates humans from animals and elevates us over them.  It becomes a competition of sorts.  But one where we already treat ourselves as the obvious winner.  As an example of how words shape our thinking, what do you assume when I mention a wild wolf?  And how is that different to docile dog?  Both are neutral descriptions, but I imagine you saw the wild wolf as feral and primal but the docile dog perhaps as curled up by a fire with its owner.  I find it interesting to look at why we think like this.  Today I suspect it’s because it’s such a key part of ideology of our culture that we don’t tend to question it.  Humans as different, as superior to, animals is an assumption that often goes unchallenged.  But where did this idea stem from?

Well, my reading has highlighted a couple of areas.  One being religion and the other capitalism.

Aside: there are various arguments about humans having language or humans being cooperative or using tools etc that are used to suggest that humans are different to animals but many of these “rules” have exceptions and don’t stand up to tests.  I feel that this is more of a definition issue with scientists and philosophers seeking a definition for animals that does not explicitly have to discount us.

In terms of religion, and I am speaking very very broadly in generalisations and stereotypes here, humans are not animals.  In Judeo-Christian religions, man is created in the image of god and thus is sacred.  Apparently, the bible also separates men from nature explicitly but I confess my knowledge of the bible is very limited.  This way of thinking suggests that man, as the image of god, is infinitely more valuable than any other living thing.  As a side note, man created in the image of god and then created woman from man, thus by extension making women less valuable than men and closer to nature.  This is something that I want to unpick more when I look at gender and nature.  The bible also suggests that only humans have souls or spirits, again separating us from animals and making us superior.  It’s possible to fall into a black hole of internet pages if you wish to find out more about this.

There is also the question of evolution.  If you take the bible literally, you deny evolution and this makes it easier to deny humans are animals.  This way of thinking means we just appeared out of nowhere, or from god, fully formed as humans.  And in that context, it makes it possible that we are apart from animals.  Arguably still similar but it’s easier to separate us than if you belief we evolved from animals.  For if we evolved from animals, when did we become more than animals.

Arguably a modern version of religion, one that many many people subscribe to, is that of capitalism.  The ideology that more is good, that money is good, that we should all be maximising our prosperity and living for ourselves as an individual not as part of a community.  When it comes to nature and animals, this means seeing plants and animals as commodities, as resources, as potential profit.  It also validates the selfish, human centric approach to life.  And when nature becomes part of a production chain, it is no longer valued in the same way.  Businesses talk of trees in terms of tonnes of timber, of animals as food producing machines.  We distance ourselves from nature with the language of capitalism.  And when we distance ourselves, we’re erasing the value of nature and the importance of animals.  To talk of the many wonderful tree species in an area as a plantation takes away their individual worth and beauty and lives.  To talk of euthanizing piglets is to steal their identities and leave us uncaring about their deaths.  And to do all of this, we must separate ourselves from animals.

From a more secular or scientific perspective humans are generally considered animals.  To find a definition of animals which doesn’t expressly state “other than humans” is tricky.  We share DNA, we share behaviours, we share anatomy and so on.  The more we learn about animals, the closer our connections and similarities appear to be.

In reality, I think most people probably live on a gradient of belief when it comes to this question.  At one end, humans are humans and at the other, wild wolves are animals.  But in between, pets are considered pseudo-humans.  Then come the nice animals that we like and then right at the bottom of the scale is where the uglier animals hang out and those which we cannot relate to or empathise with.  This hierarchy of worth spans from full human at the top down to true animal at the bottom, with worth decreasing as you fall.  But even within this spectrum, the boundaries are changeable.  The beloved, part of the family, pet dog can become “just a dog” when circumstances change and there is no longer space in the family’s life for it.  And most people would put a labrador puppy in a different place on the spectrum to a vicious pit bull, for example.

The idea of a scale was actually put forward by Aristotle back in sometime between 384-322 bc as the scala naturae.  This would be developed further in the middle ages into the Great Chain of Being which placed God at the top, followed by angels, demons, stars, moon, kings, princes, nobles, commoners, wild animals, domesticated animals, trees, other plants, precious stones, precious metals, and other minerals.  This hierarchy came from wikipedia and I can’t find out much about the wild animal, domesticated animal distinction and why they would be so ordered.  To me, today, it would feel more intuitive to place domesticated animals above wild ones but perhaps that says more of our culture and our tendency towards keeping pets.

As the title of Hal Herzog’s book says, “Some we love, some we eat and some we hate”, we have an inconsistent relationship with animals.  There is a mix of logic and rationality along with emotion and intuition which shape our reactions to different species.  The line between pets and humans is blurring with the creation of doggy spas, clothes, cat houses and so on, in fact over 60% of US households have a pet.  But also, ¾ Americans support the right to hunt.  It is not that pet owners are inherently animal lovers, it is that they love that individual.  We can plough money into the plight of the panda but it would take a lot of convincing for most people to donate to helping the frog species which are plunging into extinction.

This inconsistent relationship with animals makes it hard to clearly and distinctly separate humans and animals.  But why does it matter?  Well that’s the subject of the next post!

Suggested resources: