Paw & Order: Animals on Trial

In the history of the criminal justice system, animals have been tried for crimes by two separate, yet equally important groups: the criminal court, which tried animals for crimes against individuals, and the ecclesiastical court, which prosecuted animals that were a menace to society. These are their stories. Chung-chung!

"Order in the court? I'll have a ham on rye."

If your only exposure to pigs is Charlotte's Web, it might surprise you to know that they aren't all "some pig," "terrific" or "radiant." In fact, a majority of animal trials involved hungry pigs eating anything that got in their way, including, as horrific as it sounds, defenseless children.

In 1386, a sow was accused of devouring the face and arms of an infant that had been left unattended in its crib. The sow was arrested and imprisoned in the same cell as human criminals. During the pig's trial, witnesses were called, evidence was weighed, and a verdict handed down: guilty of murder.

On execution day, the pig was paraded through town wearing a man's waistcoat and white shirt to symbolize the equality of animals and men in the court's eyes. It's unknown if this was a common practice, but either way, the outfit only served to make the scene all the more dreadful when the execution began.

In the spirit of the old "eye for an eye; tooth for a tooth" rule, the convicted porker was brutally maimed just like the child was. Afterwards, still wearing the now-bloodstained clothes, the sow was hanged until dead.

A fresco painting of the event adorned a wall at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Normandy until 1820 when the entire church was whitewashed. An etching based upon the painting shows the townspeople, including women and children, gathered for the execution as though it were a form of entertainment.

While they were strict, the courts were not always so quick to condemn if extenuating circumstances merited an animal's acquittal. Such was the case in 1457, when a sow killed a five-year old boy. As she began consuming the body, her six piglets joined in the feast, and were caught at the crime scene, covered in blood. However, no evidence was brought forward stating that the piglets were actually accomplices in the homicide itself. Therefore, the court gave the little pigs back to their owner with the understanding that he would be responsible if they committed a crime in the future. The owner was unwilling to vouch for the swine, so the court confiscated them, sold them, and kept the profits.

Heavy Petting

While most trials dealt with crimes against man, sometimes animals were the target of human cruelty as well. But even then they were not always viewed as innocent victims. In cases where men had committed "the unnatural deed of carnal lewdness" with an animal, the poor creature was considered compliant, and therefore charged, convicted, and executed along with the human that had assaulted it.

A rare animal trial held in the New World took place in 1662 (a trial overseen by Cotton Mather, who 20 years later became known as the instigator of the Salem Witch Trials) when a Connecticut man named Potter, described as "devout in worship, gifted in prayer," was charged with numerous unnatural deeds reaching back 50 years. It was believed that Potter had been possessed by "an unclean devil," which forced him to commit these acts, but he and the animals were found guilty nonetheless. On the gallows stood Potter and his only living victims - "a cow, two heifers, three sheep and two sows" - all of whom were executed for taking part in the crimes.

But even these animal victims were occasionally spared the hangman's noose. Take the case of Jacques Ferron, who, in 1750, was caught with a female donkey.

During the trial, character witnesses came forward to say they had known the defendant for many years and had always found the accused to be virtuous and well-behaved. Of course they were talking about the donkey, who was acquitted and set free.

No one came forward to speak for Ferron, so he burned at the stake.

Criminal trials worked well for individual animals, but if the accused was a gang of zoological hoodlums, trying and executing them one-by-one would have been difficult at best. So the Catholic Church stepped in and held an ecclesiastical trial to determine if a special form of excommunication would be necessary to deal with the threat. Because excommunication was such a serious sentence "“ far more than mere execution - the Church hired lawyers to argue the case on both sides, something absent from human trials at the time.

You Dirty Rat!

In the year 1510, the people of Autun, France, went to their local bishop and asked him to "take care of" the rats that were eating the barley crop. Being a fair man, the bishop first instigated a trial, assigning Bartholomew Chassenee as legal counsel to the vermin defendants. Because his clients didn't have a very good reputation to begin with, Chassenee knew it was going to be an uphill battle to get an acquittal.

ratOn the first day of the proceedings, Chassenee argued that the prosecution had not specified which rats were being charged with a crime. This meant every rat in Autun, even the ones who hadn't eaten the barley, could be facing excommunication for a crime they didn't commit. Therefore, every rat across the countryside needed to be summoned to court to plead their case. So the bishop made every priest in every parish announce the charges, so as many rats as possible would hear when they should come to testify. Despite these special arrangements, no rats showed up for their court date.

To answer for his clients' absence, Chassenee pointed out that human defendants could refuse a summons if making the journey to court placed their life in danger. Well, every rat was under constant threat of being eaten by hungry cats, so there was no way they could be expected to appear in court unless the prosecution was able to guarantee safe passage. The trial was adjourned to give the prosecution time to figure out how to keep every cat in town from killing a rat on the day of the trial. However, no date was set to reconvene, so the case was essentially dropped without a proper verdict. Chances are the prosecution knew it was outmatched by Chassenee, who would later become president of the Provence (similar to our U.S. Chief Justice) and widely considered one of the finest, fairest lawyers in French history.

The Root of All Weevil

If a trial appeared to be headed for a stalemate, ecclesiastical courts would often try to work out a compromise with the animal defendants. Take the case of weevils, small beetles known for their voracious appetite, which were destroying the vineyards of St. Julien, France, in April 1587.

bollLegal wrangling delayed the trial for months (and kept both lawyers on the court's payroll) until late June, when the people were called to the town square. The prosecution explained to the crowd that the case had reached an impasse and asked them to suggest an alternative place for the weevils to live. After much deliberation, a plot of land was described in great detail including the location, the dimensions, the types of plants that grew there, and the topography that could be expected. This compromise was presented to the defense in the hopes the plague would end soon.

The case was delayed again until early September (that's five months the weevils were able to stuff their bellies on grapevines), when the defendants' lawyer refused the compromise, stating the land being offered was "sterile and neither sufficiently nor suitably supplied with food for the support of the said animals." The bishop decided that both sides should have independent experts survey the land and report back as to its suitability for the bugs.

Sadly, the final decision in The People v. The Hungry, Hungry Weevils has been lost to history. Over the last 400 years, the final page of the case file has been seriously damaged, most likely eaten by insects. I smell a conspiracy"¦

A similar case occurred in 1712 at a Catholic parish in Brazil, when termites were eating the walls and tunneling under the foundations of the small settlement there. The defendants' lawyer argued that the insects were only exercising their rights of possession, considering they were there long before the monks ever came and encroached on their land.

After a long legal battle, a compromise was reached and the plaintiffs provided a suitable location for the termites to live. It's written in the case file that when the verdict was read aloud in front of the termites' hill, "they all came out and marched in columns to the place assigned." The monk who wrote the document believed this was "conclusive proof that the Almighty endorsed the decision of the court."

* * * * *

While animal trials continued well into the modern age, they became less common after the Age of Enlightenment, when it was argued that punishment for breaking the law was only reasonable if the defendant had the mental capacity to understand and conform to the law. This same concept was later applied to human criminals who suffered from mental illness, meaning the modern day "insanity defense" actually has very close ties to these animal trials of the past.

But the primary argument against animal trials came down to the fact that an animal is controlled, not by man's law, which dictates how a person should act, but instead by a natural law that dictates how an animal does act. As this idea grew more widely accepted in society, animal trials were virtually abandoned as an outdated symbol of man's fruitless struggle to control the world around him.

Michael Campanella/Getty Images
10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.


If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).


Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.


Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother


When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."


A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:


In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:


Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.


More from mental floss studios