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National Museum of Animals & Society Blog
Each week in my inbox I receive animal-related stories that are making headlines around the world, and recently I learned about a dog sentenced to a stoning in Israel. She wandered into the Monetary Affairs Court in Jerusalem’s ultra-conservative neighborhood of Mea Shearim and was allegedly identified as the reincarnation of a secular lawyer who, over 20 years ago, insulted the judges of the court. Taken off guard and frightened, one judge made the stoning sentence and enrolled neighborhood children to see that it was carried out.
Days later, the secretariat of the court put forth that it was “bitter humour”, and that the Israeli equivalent of a dog catcher removed the canine. “There is no basis for stoning dogs or any other animal in the Jewish religion, not since the days of the Temple or Abraham.,” a court statement read.
This story, whether it has validity or not, brings to mind the animal trials of the medieval era and those well into the 1700’s. For infractions such as stealing a person’s grain, causing injury to humans, or even committing fraud, an animal could be tried in the courts. Many lawyers were evaluated on their skills during such trials. Bartholomé Chassenée of France became famous for his innovative tactics to keep his client, a rat, out of the courtroom. He pleaded for the safety of the rat, explaining that his life was in danger in route to the court because of the number of neighborhood cats in the area.
But what I find most intriguing about these animal trials is the length people would go to treat defendants as humans, including dressing them in human attire during the court case or execution. This same mindset applied to the reasoning as to why an animal was sentenced or exonerated. In 1750, a female donkey was acquitted in a sodomy case after her neighbors served as character witnesses that knew her to be of good moral standing. In 1386, the six piglets of a pig hung at the gallows for her murder of an infant were spared the same sentence because of their tender age and the poor example set by their mother.
And even today, animals are sentenced, sometimes in and sometimes out of the courts for their character or actions. And many times, like the Israeli case (whether true or falsified), the judgements made are based on superstition or fear of the unknown. Have you heard about an animal who was unjustly accused and sentenced? Or perhaps one that was reasonable?