The Use and Abuse of Animals in Criminology: A Brief History and Current Review

By Beirne, Piers | Social Justice, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

The Use and Abuse of Animals in Criminology: A Brief History and Current Review


Beirne, Piers, Social Justice


1. Introduction

In an essay on animal-related human behavior, the sociologist Clifton Bryant (1979) once made a plea for the study of "zoological crime." By this somewhat jarring term, Bryant referred to the violation of "animal related social norms... [which] may well be among the most ubiquitous of any social deviancy" (Ibid.: 412). Since that clarion call the study of "zoological crime" (or of "animal abuse," the term used here) has altogether failed to find a place in criminology. Scholarly studies of animal abuse remain virtually non-existent, and the topic is completely ignored in criminology textbooks. The few apparent exceptions remain segregated from the mainstream, marginalized either by the esoteric nature of their subject matter (Hawley, 1989; 1993) or else by their radical political viewpoint (Frank and Lynch, 1992: 82, 90-94).

This essay is written in the belief that animal abuse should be placed firmly on the sociological agenda. My original strategy to remedy its neglect was to try to constitute the category of animal abuse as a coherent object of study. Yet the achievement of this task was abruptly thwarted by my discovery that, though the field of crimes against animals does not yet constitute a recognized, let alone a coherent, object of study, this is not to say that animals are never present in criminological discourse. I discovered that animals already provide a surprising amount of material for such diverse problems as, inter alia, the configuration of rural class relations in 18th-century England, the alleged links between crime and human nature, and the behavioral manifestations of children who are likely to be violent as adults.

In what follows I identify the scripts and statuses with which animals are endowed in criminology. I describe seriatim four intellectual milieus in which animals can be found on those occasions when they enter criminological discourse. These I term, respectively:

1. Animals as criminals (and vice versa);

2. Animals and humans as partners in crime;

3. Analogies between animals and humans; and

4. Animals as objects.

How do animals enter these milieus? Do they appear as authentic subjects, for example, or are they brought in as Cartesian automata that are mere appendages to humans? Are they viewed as sentient beings with innate rights or as edible meat awaiting slaughter? I will suggest that, when answered, some of these questions invite the charge that, as a discipline, criminology has been guilty of a thoroughgoing speciesism. I must stress that, though it is the discursive presence of animals in criminology that this essay addresses, my concern here is more with a description of the roles that nonhuman animals (henceforth "animals") occupy in criminology than with animal advocacy as such. That task I will undertake in an essay companion to this one.

2. Animals as Criminals (and Vice Versa)

In parts of medieval Europe from approximately 1280 until as late as 1750, animals that had harmed humans were sometimes prosecuted and punished for their misdeeds (Beirne, 1994). Ideological confirmation of this seemingly bizarre practice was extracted from biblical dictates. Thus: "if an ox gore a man or a woman that they die, then the ox shall be surely stoned" (Exodus, xxi, 28). Its institutional enforcement was sanctioned both by folklore and by legal (especially Catholic) opinion, which agreed on the need to prosecute deserving animals in the medieval courtroom and, in appropriate cases, to execute them for their crimes. Domestic[ated] animals were tried in the secular courts and, if necessary, were exposed to the same terrors of public execution as were humans. Wild animals and "vermin" were tried in the ecclesiastical courts and, if found guilty, were subject to the curse of a malediction.

The broad matrix of medieval animal trials has been described, and their origin and end debated, in a small English-language literature devoted to the subject (Evans, 1906; Westermarck, 1906, 1: 249-260; Frazer, 1923: 397-417; Kelsen, 1923: 3-8; Newman, 1978: 89-94; Finkelstein, 1981; Cohen, 1986; Oates, 1989; Beirne, 1994). …

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