Beasts Before the Bar

Quaint court scenes of yesteryear show that ignorance of the law was once no excuse even for an animal.


A provision of the sentence was that the accomplices be warned of the punishment meted out to their more belligerent associates.

G. Frederick Mason

These historical accounts illustrate the universal human tendency to recognize certain similarities between ourselves and lower animals. In scientific jargon the tendency is termed anthropomorphism. It rests upon an implicit belief that other living creatures have the same kinds of psychological experiences as men and women. Probably many of the people who protested the killing of the circus elephant, Dolly, rationalized their objections by thinking of the precipitating event as an “accident.” They may have felt that the animal did not “mean” to injure the boy. Regardless of their reasoning, these individuals were reacting precisely as human beings have reacted for many centuries.


Fair Warning. If the rats did not move to the quarters that were recommended, Rough on Rats would be used. An example of “the intelligent approach” as recently as 1888.

G. Frederick Mason
Basic human attitudes and beliefs do not change rapidly. The notions that permitted our forefathers to try, convict, and execute animals as though they were criminals are not completely lacking from our own psychology in this modern and supposedly scientific age.

The difference is that our ancestors assumed that animals had a moral sense and that they either lived up to it or not. If an animal was guilty, it must be punished according to the same laws that applied to man. Today, we know a great deal more about the psychology of animals than our ancestors did and are in a position to know much better how a given animal should be treated. We should ask whether the offender is naturally vicious or whether it was goaded to violence by somebody’s cruelty or carelessness.

The emphasis today is on proper precautions and laws to ensure public safety. Society demands that a dangerous animal be put where it can do no harm; but it also demands that the animal be treated humanely.

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