Friday, November 19, 2010

Animal Trials in the 20th Century

    The concept of animals being put on trial is inarguably a foreign concept in the modern age. The anthropomorphism employed in medieval animal trials is staggering and even quite comical -- but something of this legal oddity persists today. The most obvious modern-day comparison to medieval animal trial is the case of an attack dog being "put down." But there is a critical difference between the today's perspective and that of the medieval age. Today, a dog who happens to wound or kill a human is seen as a threat to society and therefore it can be legally argued that the dog must be removed from society.  No one blames the actions of the dog per se, as it is simply acting as it was trained. Its euthanization is an unfortunate matter of circumstance; probably due to an irresponsible owner. But in the medieval animal trial, a murderous sow is seen as morally accountable for its actions -- as a cognizant player in society, and it is punished as such. This, to me, is what makes animal trials of the middle ages so seemingly absurd by today's standards. Moreover, these differences of threat vs. accountability seem like pretty concrete divisions between animals on trial today and in the middle ages.
    So I decided to do some research into other animal trials that have occurred in the modern age, and it seems like this framework I just set up in the preceding paragraph is not as solid as it would seem. Based on the examples below, our legal system may not be so removed from the one that ordered cockchafer larvae, "to appear before the bishop in order to tell their story." (Dinzelbacher 412)

1. German Shepherd Gets Old Sparky:
In January 1926, a stray German Shepherd in Kentucky was charged with the attempted murder of a small child. it was sentenced to death and executed in the electric chair. Unfortunately I could not find any further evidence on this case -- such as how they managed to effectively strap the dog in.

2. Monkey Charged With Assault:
Bottle-Alley was home to a street minstrel named Cassio Dillio, who possessed a "large specimen of the monkey tribe" named Jimmy. One day, as Cassio grinded his crank and Jimmy danced a jig, a "Robust daughter of the Emerald isle," Mary Shea, decided to give little Jimmy a piece of candy as a token of appreciation. Once Jimmy began to chow-down, Mary tried to have a little fun with him by snatching the candy from back. The monkey "thereupon assumed a decidedly aggressive attitude" and bit Mary's finger. Cassio and Jimmy were arrested and to court the case went.
Upon hearing the case the judge stated, "If Mr. Darwin were prosecutor in this case, he might succeed in convincing me that the statues authorize the holding of criminal monkeys, but I do not think I can legally commit him." Miss Shea protested, but to no avail. Jimmy removed his velvet hat, climbed atop the judge's desk and attempted to shake his hand. It is reported that the official police blotter for the case read: "Name: Jimmy Dillio; Occupation: Monkey; Disposition: Discharged."

3. Cats and the Right to Free Speech:
In Augusta, Georgia  in 1981, local resident Carl Miles took to the streets to show off his incredible talking cat, Blackie. Carl and his wife Elaine made a pretty good living off of Blackie and her two catchphrases, "I love you" and "I want my momma." They made such a good living, in fact, that the state informed them that they needed to file for a business license in order to continue or face jail time. The Mileses eventually caved, but appealed the case in an effort to challenge the constitutional validity of the Augusta city ordinance as they believed it infringed on Blackie's 1st Amendment rights.

However, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the lower-court decision, adding the following in a footnote:

This Court will not hear a claim that Blackie's right to free speech has been infringed. First, although Blackie arguably possesses a very unusual ability, he cannot be considered a "person" and is therefore not protected by the Bill of Rights. Second, even if Blackie had such a right, we see no need for appellants to assert his right
jus tertii. Blackie can clearly speak for himself.



1 comment:

  1. I would be interested to know more about how you found these particular cases and how representative they are of modern justice. That said, the comparison makes me wonder about how representative the pig cases that we talked about in class actually were: if we can find instances in which animals were put on trial in our own day even though such cases are relatively unusual, it should make us wonder about how normative trying pigs for murder actually was in the fourteen or fifteenth century. That said, again, it occurs to me that two of the examples you give here are for "trickery" rather than harm; even we find them absurd, whereas there is little indication in the sources that there was any humor in medieval or early modern animal trials. Although rereading, I realize that the humor in the second trial is more in the outcome than in the incident; the monkey actually bit the woman who tried to take the candy back. A fuller comparison of the pre- and post-Evans trials would need to take into account the ways in which our ideas about animals have changed (in part, thanks to arguments like Evans'). Thus it seems simply grotesque to electrocute the dog rather than a way of dealing with an otherwise intolerable event. But I think you are definitely on the right track to help us make better sense of the trials.