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Kangaroo Court: Animals on Trial

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I write about things I find interesting, and although I am not an expert, I have fun learning as I research. I hope you like the results!

If an ox gore a man or a woman that they die, then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be quit – Exodus 21:28

If an ox gore a man or a woman that they die, then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be quit – Exodus 21:28

Kangaroo Court

A kangaroo court is a body of people acting as unofficial judges. Usually operating outside the laws of the land and recognising only its own decisions as law. The term can also apply to a legal body that disregards their own laws in making their decisions in a trial.

I think it can best be summed up as lynch mob mentality using a thin veneer of legal justice to ensure that their decision is the only outcome.

Although the origin of this phrase is not known for sure, a few possibilities have been put forward and the one that makes the most sense to me is the one I read here at

”The concept of kangaroo court dates to the early nineteenth century. Scholars trace its origin to the historical practice of itinerant judges on the U.S. frontier. These roving judges were paid on the basis of how many trials they conducted, and in some instances, their salary depended on the fines from the defendants they convicted. The term kangaroo court comes from the image of these judges hopping from place to place, guided less by concern for justice than by the desire to wrap up as many trials as the day allowed.”

The kangaroo court then has nothing to do with animals, but animals have been involved in many courtroom trials over the centuries.

Let’s have a look at some of the cases.

Animals on Trial

Incredibly, there really have been cases of animals being put on trial for ‘crimes’.

How an animal is supposed to understand human laws and morals is beyond me, but it would seem that was what was expected of these animals that were tried and found guilty.

The earliest recorded case of an animal trial for a crime, was in the suburbs of Paris in the thirteenth century when a pig was executed. There have to be easier ways to get bacon?

This judicial process against animals occurred throughout Europe up until the eighteenth century.

The animal trial usually involved domesticated animals, possibly due to the fact that they were around humans more than wild animals but who knows the minds of people who think animals can stand trial?

Animal trial cases ranged from criminal damage to murder. The animals were defended by human lawyers and the ones that were found guilty were usually executed or banished from the land.

A pig on the gallows awaiting its execution.

A pig on the gallows awaiting its execution.

Case Files

In 1474 in the Swiss city of Basle, a rooster was charged with ‘the heinous and unnatural crime of laying an egg’.

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It was suspected of being fertilised by Satan and the egg was suspected of containing a ‘Cockatrice’ – A mythical beast resembling a two-legged dragon-like creature with a rooster’s head.

In all probability, this was likely either a dominant hen that had been mistaken for a rooster or it was born with both sets of sexual organs.

Personally, it sounds to me like a case of ‘fowl play’, but if it has your feathers ruffled, you can read more about the case in this .pdf file.

Bartholomé Chassendé was a French criminal lawyer who was tasked with defending rats in a sixteenth-century animal trial. The charge? That they had “Feloniously eaten and wantonly destroyed local barley”.

There is another animal trial case from 1750 of a donkey that was acquitted of bestiality due to witnesses testifying to the creature’s good nature. Things didn’t turn out quite so well for the donkey’s ‘lover’ however, as he was executed.

Other Strange Animal Trials

In those superstitious times, it was also relatively common for animals to be considered ‘familiars’, or animals that assisted witches in their practices of the dark arts. These would be burned at the stake without trial.

People accused of being ‘werewolves’ were also put on trial, although unsurprisingly, this was always while they were in their human persona.

The most famous example is that of the alleged werewolf, Peter Stumpp, which I will include in an article I plan to write about the history of serial killers.

Promotional poster for Forepaugh & Sells Brothers circus – circa 1899

Promotional poster for Forepaugh & Sells Brothers circus – circa 1899

Topsy the Elephant

Europe was where the majority of animal executions took place, but there is one infamous case from the United States.

Smuggled into America from Asia around 1875, Topsy was taken in as part of the performing elephants at Forepaugh and Sells Brothers Circus. She quickly gained a reputation for bad behaviour and in 1902 killed a spectator at one of the shows.

After this tragedy, she was sold to the Coney Island Sea Lion Park. More incidents followed, most of which were attributed to Topsy, even though it was more likely she had been mishandled by her drunken keepers. Either way, it was decided that Topsy was to be executed and plans were put in place for a public execution of the unfortunate beast.

The public hanging was prevented due to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals stepping in. However, they couldn’t prevent the execution altogether and on the 4th January 1903 in front of a select group of individuals and the press, poor Topsy was put through a tortuous end. Starting with being fed poison, strangulation via a steam-powered rope pulley system and thrown in for good measure was a dose of electrocution.

The electrocution is what ultimately killed Topsy.

The other thing of note from this terrible spectacle is that amongst the band of witnesses was a crew from the Edison Manufacturing Movie Company. It is because of this that Topsy’s fate is still remembered. It was originally filmed for the purpose of playing in coin-operated machines.

The film of this still exists.

“Trial of a sow and pigs at Lavegny”

“Trial of a sow and pigs at Lavegny”


Sometimes, leniency was shown to the defendants of the animal trial. This would apply more often if the defendant was young.

An excellent example of this can be seen in the prosecution of a sow and her six piglets, accused of infanticide.

“The sow was found guilty and condemned to death; but the piglets were acquitted on account of their youth, the bad example of their mother, and the absence of direct proof as to their having been concerned in the eating of the child.”

Source: The book of days: a miscellany of popular antiquities

The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals – E.P. Evans

This is the most comprehensive book ever written on the subject of the animal trial.

Written by E.P.Evans, and first published in 1906.

Within its pages are chronicled many strange and wonderfully weird cases of animals being tried for perceived crimes.

Amongst the crimes listed are:

  • Homicide committed by bees, bulls, horses and snakes.
  • Fraud by field mice disguised as heretical clerics.
  • Infanticide by pigs.
  • Theft by foxes.

Evans details judicial proceedings against a whole menagerie of creatures, including but not limited to:

Horseflies, Spanish flies and gadflies, beetles, grasshoppers, locusts, caterpillars, termites, weevils, bloodsuckers, snails, worms, rats, mice, moles, cows, horses, mules, bulls, pigs, oxen, goats, cocks, cockchafers, dogs, wolves, snakes, eels, dolphins and turtledoves.

© 2018 Ian


Ian (author) from Durham on October 18, 2018:

Indeed it was Cecil. It's incredible that people are so short-sighted when it comes to animal behaviour. Just because you put a wild animal amongst people, you shouldn't expect it to behave like a house pet.

Cecil Kenmill from Osaka, Japan on October 18, 2018:

I've heard of Topsy. What a tragedy.

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