While some may consider the judicial system of today to be little more than a circus, it’s certainly no where near the mockery of courts of the past where animals were often tried by the same laws that applied to men. And not only did livestock find themselves under the scrutiny of a judge, but other creatures including locusts, snails, moles, and even horseflies had their time in the seat of the defendant.
One foul fowl in Basil Switzerland allegedly had connection with the devil, and had laid an egg that was described simply as “defiance of natural law.” The details of the case, being from 1471 were long since lost, in particular the actual nature of the demonic egg lain. The judge ruled that the chicken was no chicken at all, but rather a devil in disguise. It was condemned to death.
Not all trials, however, end in tragedy for the unsuspecting defendants. A far more benign trial in 1519 was held against a group of moles who were accused of burrowing under crops and damaging them in Stelvio, Northern Italy. The moles, who had wrecked havoc on the countryside had rendered several crops barren by their intricate tunnels over several crops. The judge, studying the case brought before him said the letter of the law required that they “show cause for their conduct by pleading the exigencies and distress.” The moles never showed up to court to defend themselves, and were sentenced in absence to exile from the village. The judge, however, being a merciful man said they were promised safe passage out of the country, and that “an additional respite of 14 days to all those which are with young, and to such as are in their infancy.” Perhaps the court was entirely serious, but given the nature of the sentence, it seems the judge deserves some level of credit for his tongue in cheek sentence.
In 1701 in Maranhao Brazil, a community of Franciscan monks filed suit against the termites that had been eating the walls of their dear abbey. When the termites were subpoenaed, and a summons was filed for them to appear in court, they refused. The judge had an attorney appointed on behalf of the termites. The lawyer who defended them dazzled the courts with his closing arguments, declaring that the termites had precedent in the area. The monks were ordered by the judge to stop oppressing the termites and that each should live with the other in harmony without excessive interaction. The termites, additionally, had a court appointed crier sent to their hills all around the community as a new declaration was shouted that they should be bound by law to be on their best behavior and avoid excessive chewing of the buildings. The termites seemed to follow the letter of the law as no further suits were filed.
One of the most fitting stories of animals on trial, however, came at the trial of a bear held in German court in 1499 for destruction of property, theft, mischief, trespassing, and resisting arrest. The bear allegedly had run through villages on a crime spree, knocking over carts and sending villagers fleeing before being apprehended. An attorney was brought forth who delayed the case for more than a week declaring that if the bear was to be tried in a human court, at least it could have a jury of its peers. As the judge did not want to fill the jury box with potentially dangerous black bears, the creature was acquitted and taken far away from the village.