In Switzerland voters will decide on Sunday on a controversial proposal to appoint state-funded lawyers to represent animals in court.
Cows need a defense counsel too, some Swiss believe
Supporters of the initiative say such lawyers would help deter cases of animal cruelty and neglect. But opponents claim that Switzerland, which already has strict animal protection laws, does not need any more legislation.
The canton of Zurich already has its own animal lawyer; Antoine Goetschel is the only lawyer in Europe who goes to court to speak on behalf of animals.
His clients include dogs and cats, guinea pigs, cows, horses and sheep - even, recently, a large pike, fished from Lake Zurich.
“It took ten minutes of struggle to reel the pike in before killing it,” Mr Goetschel explained. “I regard that as cruelty – if someone had done that to a puppy, there would have been outrage.”
In fact Mr. Goetschel lost that particular case, but that hasn't deterred him. He believes appointing lawyers to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves is the essence of justice.
“People accused of animal cruelty very often hire lawyers to defend themselves,” he pointed out. “Why shouldn't someone speak for the animal as well? It's about fairness and defending a minority.”
Supporters of a nationwide system of animal lawyers in Switzerland point to the sharp increase of prosecutions for animal cruelty in Zurich since the canton acquired its own animal lawyer.
Antoine Goetschel cites two cases in which sheep were left outside to starve and freeze three winters ago. In canton Zurich, those responsible were charged and quickly handed high fines.
In canton Valais, where there is no animal lawyer, the case has still not come to court.
Meanwhile in canton Aargau, Marlies Widmer manages a home for neglected animals. For her, animal lawyers can't come soon enough.
At the moment Marlies has over 40 dogs in her care, as well as 30 cats, and several rabbits and guinea pigs.
She believes Switzerland's strict animal welfare laws, among them mandatory animal care courses for dog owners, and a prohibition on guinea pigs being kept alone in cages, are simply not being enforced.
Animal rights activists are delighted that the vote is taking place
“At the moment even if there are court cases, the fines are tiny, laughably small,” she said. “They don't deter people at all, we really want people who have behaved in such a brutal manner towards animals to be properly punished.”
But there is one rather powerful lobby in Switzerland with big doubts about yet another layer of animal protection legislation. Swiss farmers are already struggling with reduced subsidies and falling milk prices, and many fear the introduction of animal lawyers could lead to long, costly and unnecessary court cases.
Hans Staub, who has a dairy farm in the town of Waedenswil, is in full compliance with all the many existing laws governing the keeping of cattle.
His cows are clean and well fed. In the winter they spend their time mostly in the stall but Hans follows the rules and lets them out into the fields two or three times a week.
“You know, as a farmer, I have always thought of an animal's welfare and dignity as an integral part of my job,” he said. “But animal lawyers, no, farmers won't vote for that. We see it as unnecessary bureaucracy, a kind of academic exercise.”
What's more, Hans and his farming colleagues are very suspicious of what they believe is a hidden agenda among those pushing for stricter animal welfare laws.
“Some of these groups actually question the ethics of keeping animals at all”, he pointed out. “It should be possible for us to do our jobs, all the while respecting our animals, but we are farmers and we want to stay farmers.”
Costly legal fees
Antoine Goetschel believes the farmers' fears are groundless. “If they keep their animals properly and obey the law, they have absolutely nothing to fear from me,” he insisted.
“But”, he continued, “perhaps the problem is that lots of people just don't like lawyers; after all, one in two people nowadays may have a costly divorce behind them”.
In fact, the cost of appointing animal lawyers nationwide may be the proposal's downfall. In the past, Swiss voters have been very supportive of tough animal welfare legislation, but this time the government is recommending a no vote.
One reason could be that animals who need their day in court won't, of course, be paying the lawyer's fees – that will be left to the Swiss taxpayer.
Author: Imogen Foulkes
Editor: Susan Houlton