Animals as Weapons: Exotic Killers in Fact and Fiction

Animals as Weapons: Exotic Killers in Fact and Fiction

Scorpion, used as an "animals as weapons" trope in James Bond.
A scorpion appears as an “animals as weapons” trope in James Bond. Photo from Pixabay.

A scorpion sting in the night

Pain wrenched me out of my sleep. It was around 2:00 am in the old stone house we were renting in an alpine Italian village, and my left knee burned with such intensity that sleep was out of the question. The whole knee hurt, it was slightly swollen, and moving it to various positions gave me no relief. In the dark, I rummaged through my nightstand drawer, found some pain gel, and slapped it on. And in half an hour, the pain disappeared again, never to return.

It didn’t make sense. I hadn’t injured my knee that day. And arthritis doesn’t come on with a pain level from zero to a hundred overnight and then disappear just as fast. I had no idea what happened to me.

It was a couple of days later that I first thought of the scorpions. It was too late to check for the pinpoint prick where the stinger entered the skin, but I think that’s what happened to me.

A scorpion in the door frame.
Here’s one of the scorpions we found in our rented Italian house.

We had found several scorpions in the house, inch-long little black creatures we handled like spiders, catching them in paper and setting them outdoors. A quick Google search confirmed that the Italian species is toxic but not deadly. They like to come into houses in August and most scorpions stings occur in that month (my misadventure was on September 2). The pain feels like a bee or wasp sting – a good description of what I experienced – accompanied by swelling, and often disappears within an hour. And scorpions love warm, moist places like bedding and shoes.

Animals as weapons as a TV and movie trope

A tarantula was used for the "animals as weapons" trope in "Get Smart."
A tarantula appears as an “animals as weapons” trope in Get Smart. Photo from Pixabay.

My Italian scorpion encounters got me wondering about a popular trope in crime films: animals as weapons. A typical movie assassin trains a poisonous animal and drops it into a the victim’s home or hotel room to do the assassin’s job for him. Remember the snake stalking James Bond in his bathroom in Live and Let Die? Or the probe droid that let killer centipedes in Padmé Amidala’s room in the second Star Wars film? For me, the most memorable scene from the Get Smart series was when someone let a killer tarantula into Maxwell’s room. He killed it by turning over a glass full of horseradish on top of the spider and suffocating it.

Another James Bond movie features a scorpion as a murder weapon. An assassin dropped a deadly scorpion down the back of someone’s shirt in Diamonds are Forever. All those examples made me wonder: Has anyone really used a scorpion as a murder weapon? Are there any court cases involving animals as murder weapons?

Animals as weapons in real cases

A snake has been as an assault weapon, but such cases are rare.
A snake has been as an assault weapon, but such cases are rare. Photo from Pixabay.

I’ve found only one book suggesting the possibility of a scorpion as a murder weapon, and that was in the case of Pope John Paul I’s mysterious death. The lethal sting of a Golden Scorpion, an Asian species, can cause a sudden death that would look like the pope’s. But even the author dismisses the possibility as unlikely.

In reality, scorpions, spiders and snakes make lousy murder weapons. Any assassin who lets an animal into a room can’t be assured it will actually attack. It might just crawl off into another room or out a window. Exotic and toxic pets have to be registered in many countries, making them easier for the police to track than a garrote or a knife. And if the killer really wants to play it safe, he or she would have to catch the animal after the murder and remove it from the crime scene so that law enforcement won’t suspect it. The image of assassins running around the pope’s bedroom, at night, trying to recapture a lethal scorpion without anyone in the Papal Palace noticing it is too ridiculous to be plausible.

But there are cases of killers using animals as weapons. Criminal justice instructor Carmen M. Cusack includes a chapter on animals as weapons in her book, Animals and Criminal Justice. Although an animal is more likely to be used as a weapon in war or in self defense – guard dogs are an example – she does list cases in which people used animals to assault another person.

Dogs are the most frequent animals used as weapons.
Dogs are the animals most frequently used as weapons. Owners who order their dogs to attack can subject themselves to criminal charges. Photo from Pixabay.

Dogs are the most frequently used animal weapons. A New York Times article points out that courts are increasingly likely to uphold a conviction for assault with a deadly weapon if a dog attacks someone or the owner orders it to attack.

But Cusack does list one case of a snake as a weapon. The defendant didn’t let it into his girlfriend’s room, James Bond-style. Instead, he beat his girlfriend with his pet python while she sat in the bathtub. The girlfriend survived, bruised, but the snake died. And the man did face charges.

Which of these animals would scare you the most if it snuck into your room?

Can you add any more examples of exotic animals as weapons, either from fiction or real life?

Literature on point

Carmen M. Cusack, Animals and Criminal Justice (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2015).

Lucien Gregoire, Murder by the Grace of God (Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse, 2013) 249-251.

David Goodman, “Instruments of Danger in Weapons Case Were Dogs, Authorities Say,” New York Times, October 6, 2013.

Associated Press, “Police: Massachusetts man used pet python to attack woman,” Fox News, November 3, 2012.

Written by
Ann Marie
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  • Excellent article as usual Ann! You know that Cleopatra was allegedly murdered with the help of an asp, which would have been one of the earliest documented cases of an animal being used as a murder weapon.

    • Actually I hadn’t known that Andy, so thanks for calling attention to that interesting piece of history!

      Going back a century further, Hannibal used to throw pots of poisonous snakes onto enemy ships. They were weapons of war though, not murder weapons. But it’s interesting to see snakes being used as weapons in a different context.

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