Defining Animals through the Law

By Sarah N.

In order to better understand the significance of animal trials, we must grapple with what it means to be an “animal” versus a “human.” Does the word animal refer to an entity that is controlled by its human owner? Is an animal a creature without a voice or free will? Is an animal merely a pawn in a relentless struggle for power and dominance?

Alciato

Despite Christian doctrine that suggested animals lack free will and souls, the law would still convict animals under the assumption that they possessed human characteristics. Religious beliefs complicated the motivations behind animal trials. When animals of the Renaissance were convicted of crimes, it was “both in a moral and a juridical sense—thus implying their free will” (Dinzelbacher 405). In addition to suggesting that animals have free will, the conviction of animals supposed that they were capable of understanding human speech; this was a complete contradiction to the typical Renaissance human’s perception of animal capabilities (Dinzelbacher 405).

The people of the Renaissance also conducted animal trials to assert dominance over animals, while using them as a pawn for power and control (Elvin 531). The main purpose of trials during the Renaissance was to condemn “deviance” or “wrong-doing,” while simultaneously giving animals a voice, implying that animals do indeed have the freewill needed to commit a crime, recognize their action as a crime, and understand the punishment for their discretions (Elvin 535).

Even today, humans are still concerned with defining what it means to be an animal. Modern day laws pertaining to animals suggest that humans are still deeply concerned with asserting superiority over animals, while at the same time attempting to define animals via the use of what would typically be considered “human” characteristics. One specific animal rights law even suggests that animals should have the right to own property because “To be living property is also to have the legal capacity to own other property” (Favre 1068). Within this statement, humans are once again asserting their power by defining animals as “owned property” (Favre 1068).

Throughout my research of animal trials of the Renaissance and modern laws, it is clear that a power struggle between humans and animals exists. The need for humans to assert their dominance over animals has resulted in the instigation of trials and laws pertaining to the definition of an “animal” and what this means for their status within the legal system. As humans of the past and present struggle, to define what the word “animal” truly means, they have and continue to inadvertently give a voice and power to the creatures that they wish to control.

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Image: Alciato, Andrea. “Bear, and Forbear.”  Alciato’s Book of Emblems: The Memorial Web Edition in Latin and English (1531). Web. 24 April 2012.

Dinzelbacher, Peter. “Animal Trials: A Multidisciplinary Approach.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.3 (2012): 405-421.

Elvin, Jesse. “Responsibility, ‘Bad Luck’, and Delinquent Animals: Law as a Means of Explaining Tragedy.” Journal of Criminal Law 73.6 (2009): 530-558.

Favre, David. “Living Property: A New Status for Animals within the Legal System.” Marquette LawReview 93.3 (2010): 1021-1171.

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About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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