In 2019, Dr. Michael H. Stone, Dr. Gary Brucato and Dr. Ann Burgess proposed formal criteria by which “mutilation” might be systematically distinguished from the act of “dismemberment,” as these terms are commonly used interchangeably. They suggested that dismemberment involves “the entire removal, by any means, of a large section of the body of a living or dead person, specifically, the head (also termed decapitation), arms, hands, torso, pelvic area, legs, or feet.” Mutilation, by contrast, involves “the removal or irreparable disfigurement, by any means, of some smaller portion of one of those larger sections of a living or dead person. The latter would include castration (removal of the penis), evisceration (removal of the internal organs), and flaying (removal of the skin).” According to these parameters, removing a whole hand would constitute dismemberment, while removing or damaging a finger would be mutilation; decapitation of a full head would be dismemberment, while removing or damaging a part of the face would be mutilation; and removing a whole torso would be dismemberment, while removing or damaging a breast or the organs contained within the torso would be mutilation.
Some ethnic groups practice ritual mutilation, e.g. scarification, burning, flagellation, tattooing, or wheeling, as part of a rite of passage. In some cases, the term may apply to treatment of dead bodies, such as soldiers mutilated after they have been killed by an enemy.
The traditional Chinese practices of língchí and foot binding are forms of mutilation. One form of mutilation that has captured the imagination of Westerners is the "long-neck" people, a sub-group of the Karen known as the Padaung where women wear brass rings around their neck. The act of tattooing is also considered a form of self-mutilation according to some cultural traditions, such as within Christianity. A joint statement released by the United Nations and numerous other international bodies opposes female circumcision as a form of mutilation. Whether or not male circumcision amounts to mutilation is a subject of academic debate. The Danish Society for General Medicine has declared non-medical male circumcision an ethically unacceptable mutilation while the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has condemned non-medical male circumcision as a "violation of the physical integrity of children".
Maiming, or mutilation which involves the loss of, or incapacity to use, a bodily member, is and has been practiced by many societies with various cultural and religious significance, and is also a customary form of physical punishment, especially applied on the principle of an eye for an eye.
Maiming of animals by others than their owners is a particular form of the offense generally grouped as malicious damage. For the purpose of the law as to this offense animals are divided into cattle, which includes horses, pigs and asses, and other animals which are either subjects of larceny at common law or are usually kept in confinement or for domestic purposes.
In Britain under the Malicious Damage Act 1861 the punishment for maiming of cattle was three to fourteen years' penal servitude; malicious injury to other animals is a misdemeanor punishable on summary conviction. For a second offense the penalty is imprisonment with hard labor for over twelve months. Maiming of animals by their owner falls under the Cruelty to Animals Acts.
In times when even judicial physical punishment was still commonly allowed to cause not only intense pain and public humiliation during the administration but also to inflict permanent physical damage, or even deliberately intended to mark the criminal for life by docking or branding, one of the common anatomical target areas not normally under permanent cover of clothing (so particularly merciless in the long term) were the ear(s).
In England, for example, various pamphleteers attacking the religious views of the Anglican episcopacy under William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had their ears cut off for those writings: in 1630 Dr. Alexander Leighton and in 1637 still other Puritans, John Bastwick, Henry Burton and William Prynne.
In Scotland one of the Covenanters, James Gavin of Douglas, Lanarkshire, had his ears cut off for refusing to renounce his religious faith. In Japan, Gonsalo Garcia and his companions were similarly punished.
Notably in various jurisdictions of colonial British North America, even relatively minor crimes, such as hog stealing, were punishable by having one's ears nailed to the pillory and slit loose, or even cropped, a counterfeiter would be branded on top (for that crime, considered lèse-majesté, the older mirror punishment was boiling in oil), which was an example of western mutilation.
Independence did not render American justice any less brutal. For example, in the future state of Tennessee, an example of harsh 'frontier law' under the 1780 Cumberland Compact took place in 1793 when Judge John McNairy sentenced Nashville's first horse thief, John McKain, Jr., to be fastened to a wooden stock one hour for 39 lashes, have his ears cut off and cheeks branded with the letters "H" and "T".
Nebahne Yohannes, an unsuccessful claimant to the Ethiopian imperial throne who had his ears and nose cut off, yet was then freed. This form of mutilation against unsuccessful claimants to thrones has been in use in middle-eastern regions for thousands of years. To qualify as a king, formerly, one had to exemplify perfection. Obvious physical deformities such as missing noses, ears, or lips, are thereby sufficient disqualifications. The victim in these cases is typically freed alive to act (a) as an example to others, and (b) as no longer a threat.
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