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Would non-human animals make good eyewitnesses in court?

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Questions have been raised whether or not non-human animals are capable of identifying a culprit at the scene of a crime. Inquiries include the extent of recognition a pet has for his or her human companion's assailant. When introducing new evidence in a courtroom, it must pass each factor of the Daubert Standard which states:
1. Whether the theory can be and has been tested, producing test-retest reliability
2. Evidence has been peer-reviewed
3. Error rates have been recorded
4. Extent to which the theory has been excepted into the scientific community
5. Whether the evidence is relevant to the case at hand

The court has not accepted non-human animals as witnesses to crimes however, there have been considerable amount of studies to prove that non-human animals can recognize facial features. A 2012 study conducted by Orsola Salva, Lucia Mascalzoni and Giorgio Vallortigara found that sheep "maintained social proximity" with members of their own species and breed (Salva, Mascalzoni and Vallortigara, 2012; Huber, Rocca, Scaf, Viranyi and Range, 2013). Sheep were discovered to be able to distinguish specific facial features of ewes (female sheep) and single out photographs of faces of their own breed and species (Salva et al., 2012).
The latter study is not anecdotal research, but scientific analysis with the collection of sound data and conclusive results.

It is not so common for sheep to be at a typical crime scene, then again, what is considered typical these days. Salva and colleagues prove that non-human animals have potential to identify a perpetrator using facial characteristics. The theory that non-human animals can make facial identifications has been tested through several studies generating test re-test reliability. The research conducted on non-human animal social recognition is peer-reviewed with error rates recorded. When conducting research, there will always be bumps along the way; humans are prone to err. It lowers credibility to not report error rates. The theory has been excepted into the scientific community of veterinary medicine and comparative cognitive psychology.

More research needs to be designated to the capacities of non-human animals abilities to identify humans using their innate acumen. The judicial system has not yet accepted non-human animal testimony not only because it is unprecedented, but the error rates are too high. Unprecedented cases or motions do not mean changes cannot be made. The last factor of the Daubert Standard states the evidence must be relevant to the case at hand. Although there has been paramount research proving non-human animals to be able to make identifications by facial features, evidence supporting non-human animals to make sound identifications on human facial features are still lacking.

A study done by Ludwig Huber, Anais Rocca, Billy Scaf, Zsofia Viranyi and Friederike Range concluded that canines use olfactory and auditory tools to identify humans rather than visual devices (Huber et al.,2013). In Huber's study, canines were trained to match voice recognition with facial features of their domestic companions. The former study would give any courtroom reason to believe that canines are prompted to react to a certain tone of voice and facial feature. In addition, several studies use inconclusive terminology (e.g. "may have, might be, possibly, could be, high chance of" etc) (Wasserman, 1993) affirming that reasonable doubt cannot be proven.

What is the good news? The good news is, awareness is raised and studies have been done. Scientists are asking questions with new information surfacing that can aid the criminal justice system in apprehension of criminals. There are still many more questions needed to be raised, but with the meetings of the minds, people can brainstorm giving birth to enlightening research ideas.


Huber, L., Racca, A., Scaf, B., Virányi, Z., & Range, F. (2013). Discrimination of familiar human faces in dogs (Canis familiaris). Learning And Motivation, 44(4), 258-269. doi:10.1016/j.lmot.2013.04.005

Salva, O., Regolin, L., Mascalzoni, E., & Vallortigara, G. (2012). Cerebral and behavioural asymmetries in animal social recognition. Comparative Cognition & Behavior Reviews, 7110-138.

Wasserman, E. A. (1993). Comparative cognition: beginning the second century of the study of animal intelligence. Psychological Bulletin, 113(2), 211-228. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.113.2.211



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