The West Australian Saturday, December 26, 1936


This article is titled: Animal Trials of Years Ago


By "Historicus"


A Recent unusual trial which has aroused widespread interest was one in the United States of America in which a dog was tried for murder! The trial was held within the precincts of a New York courtroom, and was staged with all the ceremony and solemnity that are accorded to trials of human beings. The dog was charged with having drowned its master by climbing on his shoulders when swimming, and, found guilty, the animal was sentenced to two years' confinement in a backyard!

That trial was the first animal trial known in the world for over one hundred years. Although not generally known, however trials of animals, birds, etc., for indictable offenses were very frequent between 150 and 500 years ago, and the records of some of these trials left behind by early historians make fascinating and often amusing reading.

Rooster Arrested.

For instance, one of the most remarkable trials in the world's legal history were staged at Basle (Switzerland) early in the year of fourteen-seventy-four, when a rooster was arrested and brought before the chief Basle court on a charge of having laid an egg! That is no "tall" story, but a historical fact, as anyone who cares to delve into the legal history of Switzerland will soon find out. The poor rooster was charged with having laid an egg. That was a serious offence, for in those far-off days eggs laid by roosters were regarded as possessing extremely evil magic!

There is no record of how long the bird's trial lasted, but although it was represented by counsel, who strenuously defended the prisoner, claiming that it was a normal, well-behaved bird, the poor rooster lost the case. The bird was found guilty, and was condemned as a sorcerer to be burnt at the stake! And, amusing and ridiculous though it may appear to us, the execution, with all ceremonial and in the presence of thousands of people, was duly carried out in the public square in Basle!

In those early years the Biblical in junction that "If an ox gore a man or a woman that they die, then shall the ox be stoned," seemed to be very closely followed. Any animal that injured or killed a human being was always arrested and brought before court, and if found guilty was invariably sentenced to death, the sentence being carried out in various ways. Sometimes the condemned prisoner was sentenced to be stoned to death, strangled, killed by an axe, or burnt at the stake.


Bull's Death Sentence


One case in France in the fifteenth century concerned a bull which- was charged with having gored a woman to death. The bull was brought into the court-room in a special cage, and after it had been identified by several witnesses of the tragedy, the animal was sentenced to death by strangulation.

Many hundreds of similar trials of bulls, horses, pigs, and dogs, were staged in Europe in the 15th, 16th, and even the 17th centuries. In one case in France, a savage horse when being led to the place of execution broke away from its warders, killing one of them as it galloped madly away. The animal could not be recaptured and was declared an outlaw, a reward being offered for it, dead or alive. There is no record, however, of whether the reward was ever paid.



Sometimes the execution of animals found guilty of murder was deferred when the murderer happened to be a mother. An unusual example of this was a trial staged at Avigny (France) in 1457, when a sow and her litter of six pigs were arrested and brought into the local courtroom to face a charge of child-murder. It was stated in the evidence that the sow had attacked and partially eaten the child before help arrived. An advocate, engaged by the owner of the pigs, appeared for the sow, but she was found guilty and sentenced to death. Her young ones, however, were discharged, being exonerated from all blame, because of the parent's bad example! And in order that the little pigs would not suffer as a result of the mother's folly, the judge ordered that the sow be kept in custody and the execution be deferred until the pigs were old enough to look after themselves!

Court Order Against Beetles.

The innumerable cases in which animals were tried in courts in the early days just like ordinary citizens would fill a huge volume. It is very unlikely that the world will ever again know a case as remarkable as one which was staged in Northern Italy in the year 1445. A plague of beetles attacked the local vineyards, and, in response to an appeal by the farmers, the local Court ordered the beetles to be arrested! There is no mention in the records of the incident as to how this unusual action was to be carried out, but, by a strange coincidence, the insects all flew away the day after the order for arrest had been issued! 

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