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 creatures lack moral agency and so cannot be held culpable for an act.
Animals, including insects, faced the possibility of criminal charges for several centuries across many parts of Europe. According to a 1624 treatise by Johannis Gross, in 1474 a rooster was put on trial for ‘the heinous and unnatural crime of laying an egg,’ which the townspeople were concerned was spawned by Satan and contained a cockatrice (a mythical beast).
The earliest extant record of an animal trial is the execution of a pig in 1266 at Fontenay-aux-Roses. Animal defendants appeared before both church and secular courts, and the offenses 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 behavior while her human co-accused were sentenced to death.
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. Journalist Sadakat Kadri’s 2006 book ‘The Trial: Four Thousand Years of Courtroom Drama’ contains another detailed examination of the subject. He 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.
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. 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. Alleged werewolves were put on trial on several occasions, particularly in sixteenth-century France, though the allegation in such cases was always levelled against human defendants.