Medieval Animal Trials and Tilikum the Killer Whale
If you guys follow news about murderous animals like I do, then you probably have already heard that Tilikum, SeaWorld's famous killer whale, died last Friday. Tilikum was implicated in the death of three people over the course of two decades. The final instance took place at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010, when Tilikum pulled his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, underwater and held her there until she drowned.
Since his first killing, Tilikum has been big news. He even inspired a documentary, Blackfish, about how the multimillion dollar entertainment chain SeaWorld might be less than ethical (no way!). I first became interested in Tilikum, though, when I was writing and lecturing about medieval animal trials and what they tell us about humans, the law, and perceptions of justice.
What are animal trials, you ask? Please allow me to paint you a world picture:
In December 1457 in Savigny, France, a mother and her family stood accused of murdering five-year-old Jehan Martin. The trial unfolded as you might expect: the suspects were imprisoned; a judge was found; lawyers were appointed; witnesses called; judgments debated and rendered. This was a case like any other, except that the suspects were all pigs. A famer’s sow and her six piglets had been suspected of eating the live child and were now being held accountable for his murder in a formal court trial. To secure a murder conviction against any defendant, human or animal, the prosecution would have had three options: present a witness who actually saw the murderer slaying the victim; present some other incontrovertible proof that the murderer was indeed guilty; or secure a confession from the defendant.
Unfortunately for the sow of Savigny, someone had caught her in the act of eating the child. The piglets, however, had only been found with their mother at the scene of the crime covered in blood – no one had actually seen them harm the child. Therefore, the court remanded the piglets into the custody of the farmer who owned them.
Presumably wanting to wash his hands of the whole affair, the farmer gave them over to the local lord, the regular fate of unclaimed property. The sow was found guilty and sentenced to death by inverted hanging. Being hung by the feet was a traditional punishment for murderous animals in Burgundy, the region where Savigny was located. In some other regions throughout Europe animals faced punishments that would not be inflicted on humans, such as strangling or bludgeoning. In other places, murderous animals faced the same punishments as their human contemporaries, specifically death by dragging and hanging by the neck.
Other aspects of animal executions were identical to processes applied to humans. Evidence suggests that it was typical to hire a professional executioner to carry out animal executions as would have been done for human executions and, in a case heard in Normandy in 1386, a guilty pig was dressed in a jacket and breeches before being hung by the neck in the town square.
Trials against animals constitute only a small minority of legal proceedings in history but recur in different times, places, and legal systems. The laws of Exodus dictate that a murderous ox should be stoned to death (21:28) and Plato writes in his Laws that
“if a beast of burden or other animal kills someone (except for such occurrences in the course of public competition for a prize) let the relatives open actions at law for homicide against the killer.”(1)
By far the most evidence compiled to date for animal trials concern cases that took place in the medieval and modern periods, eras which span roughly the fifth through the twentieth centuries. This is largely thanks to a historian named E.P. Evans who published a book called The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals. The book records cases against a diverse menagerie of animals including caterpillars, weevils, eels, goats, cows, roosters, bulls, and many pigs. Some of Evans' research is dubious but he gives scholars a lot to go on. The earliest animal trial he records dates from the year 824 and the latest from 1906, the year he published his book. Evans records animal trials as having taken place Belgium, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Denmark, Russia, and New Haven, Connecticut with the bulk of his records coming from France and Switzerland.
Legal practice in medieval and early modern Europe differed from ours in that it was often overseen by two competing organizations: the secular government and the church. Ecclesiastical courts prosecuted sexy crimes like adultery, blasphemy, and assaulting priests. If neither the defendant nor complainant were priests, the secular courts handled your more pedestrian cases involving, for example, theft, assault, and murder.
Animal trials were also divided between these jurisdictions by type. Secular courts heard cases against individual animals accused of assault and murder, such as the case against our pigs from Savigny. Ecclesiastical courts heard cases against swarms of insects and vermin who infested farmlands, destroyed crops and, therefore, imperiled people’s livelihoods.
This jurisdictional division of labor made sense for at least two reasons. Firstly, ecclesiastical courts were forbidden by church law from inflicting punishments that shed blood. Therefore, they could not hand down a death sentence against a dangerous animal. Secondly, pests such as mice and insects could not be brought into court as easily as, say, a pig. But, officials at ecclesiastical courts could, in an age before pesticides, expel pests from fertile grounds by handing down sentences of excommunication or exorcism, removing their cursed existence from the lives of beset-upon farmers.
Punishments against animals found guilty could be gruesome, as in the case of the sow of Savigny, but judgments were supposed to be fair and trials humane. For example, if insects were judged guilty of infestation, their punishments would be dictated by their motivations as determined by the court. If they were judged to be instruments of the devil, the insects would be ordered to relocate to the sea or some inhospitable region where they were likely to die. If, however, if they were determined to have been sent by God as a punishment for human sin, court officials would locate a fertile region where the insects could flourish and would instruct the insects to move there. A citation issued by an ecclesiastical official ordering a group of field mice to vacate a farmer’s field nicely illustrates the court’s “tough but fair” approach:
It is the judgment of this court that the harmful creatures known as field mice be made to leave the fields and meadows of this community, never to return. Should, however, one or more of the little creatures be pregnant or too young to travel unaided, they shall be granted fourteen days’ grace before being made to move. (2)
Quotes like this tempt people, such as Wired reporter Matt Simon, to mock animal trials as "fantastically wrong," "insane," and "patently ridiculous". Maybe so, but we haven't really stopped doing it. For example, the governor of Pennsylvania incarcerated a dog named Pep in the infamous Eastern State Penitentiary in 1924 for, so the story goes, murdering his wife’s cat. You can find Pep’s mug shot on the website for this penitentiary-turned-museum. At the gift shop, you can buy tee-shirts, bandanas, magnets, mugs, postcards, and necklaces with his mug shot on it. Or for a more cuddly proximity to the convicted felon, secure yourself a stuffed replica of Pep wearing his inmate number on his collar ($15.45 including shipping and handling).
Although Simon would undoubtedly find the incarceration of Pep pretty silly, he also makes the excellent point that animal trials afforded a modicum of humanity to animals. In one stellar moment, the humanity of animals was made explicit. In 2014, an Argentine court judged that an orangutan named Sandra was a "non-human person" with a basic right to freedom who was therefore being held unlawfully at the zoo.
I'll also mention, as a PSA to TV nerds everywhere, that Judge Wapner of People's Court had a show called Animal Court that aired for two seasons on Animal Planet from 1998-2000. On the show, both human persons and non-human persons sacrifice their dignity to the yawning maw of the viewing public, insatiably hungry for trashy TV, in exchange for arbitration in small claims cases.
Which brings me back to Tilikum. Like many human persons, Tilikum's legal cases played out in both formal legal fora and the media. The Orange County Florida Sheriff's Department launched a homicide investigation into Brancheau's death to ascertain whether Tilikum had killed the trainer maliciously or if the whole thing had been the regrettable but understandable result of human and animal worlds colliding.
A New York Times article written about the incident provided readers with character witnesses for and against the whale. Richard Ellis, a marine conservationist at the American Museum of Natural History, stated that since orcas are very intelligent animals, there's no way that Tilikum didn't know what he was doing. The murder, he asserted, was “premeditated”. Conversely, Graham Worthy, a whale expert at the University of Central Florida, said that whales are so strong that, if Tilikum had intended to murder his trainer, the result would have been “much more gruesome” than it was. Worthy doubted Tilikum meant any harm because he had met the whale and described him as “a laid-back guy”.
While the possibility of euthanizing Tilikum was raised, ultimately the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined SeaWorld Orlando $75,000 for endangering its workers. Tilikum’s life was spared and he became a touchstone for continuing debates about the ethics of animal captivity. Tilikum, having produced a record 14 calves in captivity, was SeaWorld’s most successful stud. Many accused SeaWorld of exploiting Tilikum for his fruitful sperm, including perhaps the most vocal opponent after PETA, Tommy Lee of Mötley Crüe (3).
At least as important as Tommy Lee in the fight for non-human persons' rights was Tilikum himself. In a more recent article about Tilikum's life and death, Tim Zimmermann, co-writer of Blackfish, wrote:
"His life has changed how we view SeaWorld and the marine park industry, and changed our moral calculus regarding the confinement and display of intelligent, free-ranging species."
Although he doesn't come out and say it, Zimmermann comes very close to labeling Tilikum an animal-rights activist.
So what it is with animals, people and justice? Why do humans, who so strenuously assert that animals are primarily driven by, well, animal instincts turn around and expect them to be judged by human laws, to obey orders to vacate a field, or to have discernible motivations for murder? Historians have put forward many theories about why people subject animals to human justice. They suggest that people want to assert control over the uncontrollable natural world; to exact revenge on animals who hurt them; or to provide a stark warning to other similarly evil-minded animals to keep themselves in check.
A common underlying assumption, or overt assertion, historians make is that animal trials show that people mistakenly perceive animals as possessing the human traits of reason, understanding, hate, and the will to commit premeditated harm. However, I would suggest the inverse: that the application of human law to animals is meant to reaffirm our essential differences. When animals attack, we fear becoming animals ourselves by retaliating impulsively. To reaffirm our humanity, we respond to savage acts, not with equal savagery, but with remove, by the methodical application of (ostensibly) objective laws. By circumscribing our actions by means of a complex legal bureaucracy we do not acknowledge the humanity of animals-we insulate ourselves from our own animal nature.
1. Qtd in Raphael Sealey. “Aristotle, Athenaion Politeia 57.4: Trial of Animals and Inanimate Objects for Homicide.” The Classical Quarterly. 56:2 (2006): 475-485, here 477.
2. Translation from Nicholas Humphrey. “Bugs and Beasts before the Law.” In The Mind Made Flesh, edited by Nicholas Humphrey, 235-254. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. 4; transcription provided by E. P. Evans. The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1906., 260.
3. Please please click on the hyperlink to this story if only to support TMZ running an article titled "Tommy Lee Explodes Over Whale Sperm".
Opening image credit: Wikipedia Commons
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