Pets Brought to Justice
No one is above the law… not even your cat, Mr. Mittens. Animals have been tried in a court of law in the past. Read on to find out the fate of these furry felons.
Pigs were among the earliest animals to ever be put on trial, with the first taking place in 1266 at Fontenay-aux-Roses. A notable pig trial occurred in 1386, when a sow was accused of maiming an unattended infant left in its crib. The sow was arrested and imprisoned in the same cell as human criminals. During the pig’s trial, witnesses were called and the evidence was weighed.
The verdict: Guilty of murder. On execution day, the pig was paraded through town wearing a man’s waistcoat and white shirt to symbolize the equality of animals and men in the court’s eyes. The convicted pig was brutally maimed, just like the child was.
In 1916, Mary the elephant killed Red Eldridge, an amateur elephant handler, during a circus parade in Erwin, Tennessee. “Murderous Mary,” a five-ton cow elephant with the Sparks Brothers Circus was then tried, convicted, and hung by the neck from a railcar-mounted industrial crane.
Also, back in 1877, Jimmy, an organ-grinder’s monkey was charged with assault after an altercation with Mary Shea, the proprietress of a junk shop in New York.
Miss Shea decided to give Jimmy a piece of candy after he had danced a little jig for her. As the monkey began munching his prize, she playfully attempted to steal it from him. The monkey “thereupon assumed a decidedly aggressive attitude, and seizing the second finger of the junk-woman’s right hand,” bit it. Upon hearing the case the judge stated he did not believe he could legally commit a monkey. Miss Shea protested, but to no avail. Jimmy then respectfully removed his velvet hat, climbed atop the judge’s desk and attempted to shake his hand.
The police blotter for the case read: “Name: Jimmy Dillio; Occupation: Monkey; Disposition: Discharged.”
In cases where men had committed “the unnatural deed of carnal lewdness” with an animal, the animal was considered compliant, and therefore charged, convicted, and executed along with the human. However, in 1750, a man named Jacques Ferron was caught with a female donkey and put on trial. Fortunately for her, character witnesses came forward to say they had known the defendant for many years and had always found her virtuous and well-behaved. The donkey was acquitted and set free. No one came forward to speak for Ferron, so he burned at the stake.
While animal trials continued well into the modern era, they became less common after the Age of Enlightenment. Thankfully, most justice systems now assume non-human creatures lack moral agency and so cannot be held culpable for a criminal act.