In the European Middle Ages, people thought animals were perfectly capable of committing crimes. Pigs, horses, cows, and other domestic animals were arrested, charged with a lively array of offenses, jailed, tried, and convicted (or exonerated, if their assigned public defender managed to persuade a judge of their innocence). Creatures had to obey not only by human laws but also the laws of the Catholic church. Sparrows were charged with chattering during Mass. A pig was hanged for eating a consecrated Communion wafer. Another pig, charged with infanticide, ate of its flesh “although it was Friday.”
The verdicts were judicious: when a sow was sentenced to death for first-degree murder, her six piglets, though bloodstained, were acquitted, because they were too young to be knowingly complicit. When a man was accused of buggery, he was condemned to death, but his partner, a she-ass, was let off as an innocent victim of his perversion. (The local priest had known the she-ass for four years and testified that she had always shown herself to be virtuous and “a most honest creature,” her behavior beyond reproach.)
Transgressions against gender, on the other hand, were sharply punished: a cock was burned at the stake “for the heinous and unnatural crime of laying an egg,” and the outrage was so great I doubt even the most skilled public defender could have won an acquittal. Rats fared better: a gang of them was put on trial for having “feloniously eaten up and wantonly destroyed” the barley crop, but their attorney, Bartholomew Chassenée, explained that they missed their court appearance because, first of all, they probably had not received the summons, since they had no fixed address but moved from village to village, and second, even if they had received the summons, they would have been too frightened to appear in court, lest their mortal enemies the cats see them and pounce. If a person could not obey a summons because it was not safe for him to appear in court, he would be excused, Chassenée pointed out, and the judge was forced to concede the point.
Had these crimes gone unpunished, a door would have opened for the intervention of devils, explains E.P. Evans in his 1884 treatise, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals. Commenting more recently, Nicholas Humphrey, a theoretical psychologist based in Cambridge, points to the medieval Europeans’ “deep fear of lawlessness: not so much fear of laws being contravened, as the much worse fear that the world they lived in might not be a lawful place at all.” Science had yet to offer logical reasons for the world’s workings, and people “lived every day at the edge of explanatory darkness.” So it was up to the courts of law “to domesticate chaos, to impose order on a world of accidents—and specifically to make sense of certain seemingly inexplicable events by redefining them as crimes.”
Vermin and insects were not expected to appear in court, because they could not be compelled to testify on their own behalf. They underwent Thierprocesse, judicial proceedings in ecclesiastical courts that might exorcize or excommunicate them in absentia.
The ecclesiastical judges could be harsh, but they could also be merciful: when weevils damaged a vineyard by exercising their natural right to eat, for example, they were given a vineyard of their own.
“The Church was not wholly consistent in its explanation of these phenomena,” Evans wrote. “In general the swarms of devouring insects and other noxious vermin are assumed to have been sent at the instigation of Satan,” yet at times they were “treated as creatures of God and agents of the Almighty for the punishment of sinful man.” If they were minions of the devil, they should of course be put to death, but if they were creatures of God, then slaughtering them would have been sacrilege. Choosing one’s approach was tricky.
But here is something trickier: how could we ever have believed animals capable of cold-bloodedly plotting a crime, when we have never credited them with possessing the simplest emotions?
The idea that animals grieve, for example, is dismissed as fanciful. Yet a few years ago, off the coast of Vancouver Island, an orca calf died, and its mother kept that dead calf with her for seventeen days. Dolphins will lift and sink a dead body as if to help it breathe, then tow it, spin it, and dive with it. When a baby giraffe died, twenty-seven adult giraffes held a solemn vigil. At the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust in Zambia, a female chimp carefully cleaned the teeth of her dead adopted son; primates often groom or carry their dead children. In the few situations when cows are allowed to be social, not kept in separate pens, they will gather in a circle to mourn their lost family member. Just as we carry flowers to cemeteries, elephants visit their dead, stroking the bones or rocking back and forth in sorrow. Stories of these death rituals were told by Pliny the Elder two thousand years ago.
“We humans don’t own love or grief—these emotions are widespread in other animals,” says anthropologist Barbara King, author of How Animals Grieve. The more social the animal, the fiercer the pain of loss, perhaps because each death diminishes the group.
Why, then, have we ignored the obvious? Because anyone who wants scientific credibility is terrified of anthropomorphizing. And because it is easy to ignore animals that do not speak our language. Look at all the years we spent denying they felt pain. Bristol-Myers used to drip acid in baby rabbits’ eyes; factory farms deny even fresh air to their animals; calves are imprisoned in tight boxes so we can eat tender veal; steel traps mangle an animal alive; nets strangle; birds choke on our plastic and drown from our oil slicks. We race, hunt, beat, overbreed, skin for furs, capture for circuses.
Some of our relationship to other animals has been pure sadism; other enterprises are pure profit. We use animals for sport, for our amusement, or because we want some part of them for ourselves, to look fancy or feel sexier. It has been convenient to consider them expendable. Since the 1950s, philosopher James Hutton points out, there has been “a blanket refusal to take seriously the idea that non-human animals have inner lives.” Only now are we realizing that many seem to possess an instinctive moral sense. Dogs, for example, will stop working altogether if they see that another dog is receiving more treats for the same trick. They also break up fights, as do other social species, and will foster an orphan or give up food for an animal in distress. Far from being “dumb animals” devoid of feeling, rats and chickens will choose and self-administer painkillers when they are distressed. That many animals go into a quiet shock when they are in pain, rather than yelp or scream. That they are far more likely to suffer for our crimes than to knowingly commit crimes against us.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.