Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Animal Crackers

 Switzerland referendum on providing lawyers for animals” read the headline. 
“Great news” I thought, “They’re bringing back animal trials. I‘ll watch that.”

Alas this was not the case. It was something more sensible. Which is a shame because; there was once a fine tradition of animal trials, especially in Western jurisprudential history.

Dogs, pigs, cows, moles, mice, rats, snakes, birds, snails, worms, grasshoppers, caterpillars, termites, various types of beetles and flies, and other unspecified insects and “vermin” have all ended up before the beak on charges ranging from murder to obscenity. Conducted with full ceremony of evidence heard on both sides, witnesses called and in some cases legal aid and a lawyer being appointed at the tax-payer's expense to conduct the defence

Although allegedly practiced in enlightened ancient Greece, the oldest surviving confirmation of the secular prosecution of an animal in Western Europe was in 1266 with the trial and execution of an infanticidal pig in Fontenay-aux-Roses in France.

Historically, pigs feature prominently in the dock.

In 1386, in Falaise, also in France, one was tried and executed for causing a child’s death as the result of mangling the child’s face and arms. The court further sentenced the pig to have her head and upper limbs maimed before being dressed in clothes and hung, by the town's official hangman, in the public square. The village commemorated the execution with a fresco painted on a wall in the south transept of the local Church of the Holy Trinity.

   The Infanticidal Falaise Pig

In 1457, in Savigny-sur-Etang (France again), a sow and her six piglets were imprisoned and tried for the murder of a five-year-old boy. The sow was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged by her hind legs to a gallows tree. Her offspring though, were pardoned, owing in part to their youth and the bad example set by their mother.

Seemingly the porkers didn’t do themselves any favours in court either. 

An animal that remained quiet and respectful during proceedings would, receive a certain measure of consideration for it’s demeanour. On the other hand, pigs were notoriously disrespectful. Grunting, squealing and trying to poke their noses through the bars of the prisoner’s box didn’t go down well with the bench. Disorderly conduct of this kind often told against them when it came to sentencing.

Feral animals would also fall foul of the courts. In their case it was usually the ecclesiastical version that sorted them out.

In 1519, the commune of Stelvio (Italy) prosecuted a group of local moles who, in their burrowing, had damaged some crops. The moles were given 14 days to evacuate the fields.
In such cases, if animals failed to leave, they were likely to be anathemised. The animals, thus excommunicated, were considered damned. And if a Holy ASBO didn’t teach them, I don’t know what would.

When the persecution of people (that you didn’t like) for witchcraft became the new Rock ‘n’ Roll in Western Europe, animals were tried by a secular court on charges of supernatural behaviour. A cock was burned at the stake for laying an egg that, if hatched, would yield a basilisk. An egg most useful in witchcraft no doubt. 
And lest we forget the Colonies – in Salem, Massachusetts (surprise, surprise), one dog was hanged after she was “strangely afflicted,” and another was killed after she was accused of afflicting others, who apparently fell into fits the moment she looked at them.

In Switzerland itself, in 1906, a father and son team along with their dog were convicted of robbery and murder. The court sentenced the two men to life in prison. The dog however, was considered to be the chief culprit without whose complicity the crime could not have been committed. It was sentenced to death.

Animal Trials.

Those were the days.