Animal trial

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.

Illustration from Chambers Book of Days depicting a sow and her piglets being tried for the murder of a child. The trial allegedly took place in 1457, the mother being found guilty and the piglets acquitted.

Historical animal trialsEdit

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 the execution of a pig in 1266 at Fontenay-aux-Roses.[1] 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 they 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.[2]

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 animalsEdit

Animals put on trial were almost invariably either domesticated ones (most often pigs, but also bulls, horses, and cows) or pests such as rats and weevils.[3] Creatures that were suspected of being familiar spirits or complicit in acts of bestiality were also subjected to judicial punishment, such as burning at the stake, though few, if any, ever faced trial.[citation needed]

Basel caseEdit

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.[4]

Katya the BearEdit

Katya the Bear is a female brown bear native to Kazakhstan[5] who was imprisoned in 2004 after being found guilty of mauling two people in separate incidents.[6] Katya was held in the Arkalyk Prison in Kostanay.[5] The bear was released from imprisonment and allowed to congregate with other bears after serving a fifteen-year sentence.[7] Handlers report Katya socializing well with other bears after her long imprisonment.[7]


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.[8]

According to local folklore, a monkey was hanged in Hartlepool, England.[9] 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.[10] 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".

In popular cultureEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Cohen 1986, p. 7
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Evans 1987[page needed]
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ a b "Brown Bear Released from 15-Year Prison Life in a Human Jail, to Live in Zoo Now". News18. 18 November 2019.
  6. ^ Stewart, Will (17 November 2019). "Brown bear serving prison sentence in human jail for GBH released after 15 years". mirror.
  7. ^ a b World, Republic. "Brown bear released after 15 years of human prison, moved to mini-zoo". Republic World.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ "The Hartlepool Monkey, Who hung the monkey?". This is Hartlepool. Retrieved 2010-09-29.
  10. ^ Maconie, Stuart (2008), Pies and Prejudice: In search of the North, Ebury Press, ISBN 978-0091910235 (p. 300-301)


External linksEdit