Even Animals Go to Jail
The story of Katya the brown bear and other animals arrested for violence, complicity, and espionage
In 2004, the Kazakh police investigated the case of a bear who mauled two people in a campsite: an eleven-year-old boy who came too close to her cage and an intoxicated twenty-eight-year-old man who attempted to shake her paw. Ekaterina, a circus animal that had been abandoned in a cage to entertain the camp-goers, was then immediately removed by the authorities.
When no shelters or zoos would take Katya, the Kazakh authorities decided the only place to contain her was a human prison.
Katya was sentenced to life imprisonment in a strict penal colony in Kostanay, which houses other 730 (human) inmates. For fifteen years, she lived off of food scraps from the prison’s kitchen and stayed in a cell unsuitable for a wild animal. However, the prisoners got very fond of her and even built a statue in her honor.
When she made international headlines for her unusual situation, the NGOs ‘Bears in Mind’ and ‘Forgotten Animals’ demanded her immediate release and placement in a more suitable environment. A petition was started in her support.
On June 5th, 2019, Katya was finally released after fifteen years in the correctional facility of Kostanay. She was then relocated to a small zoo, in the North of Kazakhstan.
A short history of animal trials
To understand this peculiar case, it’s worth looking back at other unsettling cases of animals who were put on trial in history.
Between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries, animal trials were not a rarity in the courthouses of the world. Considering how people found human public executions exhilarating, it’s no surprise that murderous goats or nefarious horses would gather even larger attendance in the court of justice than their human counterparts.
Most commonly, a domesticated animal put on trial would be accused of an act of bestiality, or complicity in an act of witchcraft.
The Kurze Basler Chronik in Basel, Switzerland, famously claimed that in 1474 a rooster was put on trial for committing “the heinous and unnatural crime of laying an egg.” The townspeople were concerned whether the bird was a spawn of Satan, or a cockatrice in disguise and demanded the accused be executed. The rooster was found guilty and was later burnt at the stake.
Justice for all
For the sake of justice, the faith of animals was often grim. People seemed so focused on punishing the culprit, they would forget about how an animal lacks the moral agency to commit a crime. As society evolved, our collective understanding of dignity, basic rights, and moral drive did too. The public executions seized and so did the animal trials.
So how did Katya end up in jail? The Kazakh authorities relinquished the moral agency philosophy for the sake of the human victims. This is not the only case where the mistreatment or even killing of a bear is justified as an act of public safety.
Spies in disguise
Another interesting clash with the law happened in 2015 in India, when officials arrested a pigeon suspected of espionage. A boy found the bird in the Kashmir area, at the border between India and Pakistan, with a message in Urdu stamped on its body, followed by a Pakistani phone number. India took things very seriously and x-rayed the pigeon at a veterinary hospital, looking for other incriminating signs.
When nothing came out of the investigation, the story became an internet meme.
A Brazilian cat was also put under investigation when it was discovered strolling through the main gates of a medium-security prison in Arapiraca, with full-on jailbreak equipment. When the cat was detained, the guards found a couple of saws and drills, a phone charger, batteries, and a memory card.
Astonished, the guards tried to find out who the recipients were supposed to be, but were unable to get any information out of the cat. A prison spokesperson declared: “It’s tough to find out who’s responsible for the action as the cat doesn’t speak.”