The legal system generally does little to protect animals, and one aspect of its inadequacy is a matter of formal structure: under United States and Canadian law, animals are not legal “persons” with an independent right to the protections of the legal system. There are calls to expand the status of animals in the law by providing them with legal standing, the right to be represented by a lawyer, and other formal protections. But, in a way, some of this has happened before. There is a long history, primarily from the medieval and early modern periods, of animals being tried for offenses such as attacking humans and destroying crops. These animals were formally prosecuted in elaborate trials that included counsel to represent their interests. The history of the animal trials demonstrates how, in a human-created legal system, legal “rights” for animals can be used for human purposes that have little to do with the interests of the animals. This history shows us that formal legal rights for animals are only tools, rather than an end in themselves, and highlights the importance not just of expanding formal protections, but of putting them to work with empathy, in a way that strives (despite the inevitable limitations of a human justice system in this respect) to incorporate the animals’ own interests and own point of view.
Human Drama, Animal Trials: What the Medieval Animal Trials Can Teach Us About Justice for Animals,
Animal L. Rev.
Available at: https://lawcommons.lclark.edu/alr/vol17/iss2/3