Human Drama, Animal Trials: What the Medieval Animal Trials can Teach Us About Justice for Animals
By Katie Sykes
Animal Law, Volume 17, Issue 2 (2011)
Abstract: The legal system generally does little to protect animals, and one aspect of its inadequacy is a matter of formal structure: under United States and Canadian law, animals are not legal “persons” with an independent right to the protections of the legal system. There are calls to expand the status of animals in the law by providing them with legal standing, the right to be represented by a lawyer, and other formal protections.
But, in a way, some of this has happened before. There is a long history, primarily from the medieval and early modern periods, of animals being tried for offenses such as attacking humans and destroying crops. These animals were formally prosecuted in elaborate trials that included counsel to represent their interests. The history of the animal trials demonstrates how, in a human-created legal system, legal “rights” for animals can be used for human purposes that have little to do with the interests of the animals.
This history shows us that formal legal rights for animals are only tools, rather than an end in themselves, and highlights the importance not just of expanding formal protections, but of putting them to work with empathy, in a way that strives (despite the inevitable limitations of a human justice system in this respect) to incorporate the animals’ own interests and own point of view.
Inteoduction: In a New Yorker cartoon from 1999, two lab-coated researchers peer at a monkey signing to them from his cage. The caption is: “He says he wants a lawyer.” It is funny because monkeys, as a rule, do not have lawyers. The monkey in the cartoon belongs in the legal category of property, a thing with respect to which people’s rights are exercised; legally, he is not a person and has no rights to defend, so there would be no point in getting him a lawyer.
This article is about lawyers for animals, animal trials, and animal rights. It is about a historical practice that seems like far-fetched fiction, yet implicates a very contemporary debate. That debate is about the legal status of animals—whether they ought to be legally recognized as “persons,” and thus as entities that have their own legal rights, and what the implications of such reforms would be. Currently, the law treats animals as things (more or less, with some exceptions and minor caveats). Domesticated animals are property, not persons. Some argue that this legal status is the foundation of our culture’s systematic abuse of animals.