The hoof, the whole hoof...Swiss to vote on legal rights for animals

Referendum on crusade to enhance legal rights for animals expected to win 70 per cent support
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The Independent Online

Is fishing as cruel as bullfighting? Antoine Goetschel thinks so. The Swiss lawyer carries the distinction of being the first man in the world to stand up in court on behalf of a dead (and eaten) 22lb pike.

The crucial issue, according to the sole animal advocate in Europe, was the 10-minute battle between angler and giant fish before the pike was finally hauled out of Lake Zurich and landed on the bank. Mr Goetschel insisted that the fisherman should have cut the line after the first minute of the battle to save the pike from unnecessary suffering. "Angling is as barbaric as bullfighting," he told a Zurich court as a public gallery of curious and bemused fishermen listened on.

Mr Goetschel was widely ridiculed in the Swiss media before last month's trial and subsequently dismissed as a batty and interfering animal fundamentalist. He lost the case. For the fish, the result was immaterial: the angler and his friends had already dined on the prized catch in a presumably celebratory meal at a local pub.

"All the same I had those anglers worried," Mr Goetschel told The Independent this week. "For the first time, they were made aware of the possibility that they could face legal consequences for what they were doing."

Mr Goetschel is one of a kind in Switzerland. The passionate animal rights advocate fulfils the role of a state-funded public prosecutor for abused pets and farm animals in his home canton of Zurich. He represents an average of 150 to 200 abused animals a year.

But if a national referendum goes his way this weekend, there will soon be scores of lawyers like him all over Switzerland fighting in courts up and down the land for the rights of animals. In contrast to the negative publicity the country has received over attitudes to foreigners and Muslims, the Alpine nation may soon win renown as the most animal-friendly country on earth.

Opinion polls have indicated that 70 per cent of the Swiss population support the scheme. It is already illegal to keep lone goldfish, guinea pigs, canaries and budgerigars in Switzerland because they could become lonely and suffer as a result. Dog owners have to take training courses and from 2013 it will be against the law to keep horses tied up in their stalls.

The poll has been set in motion by the campaign group, Swiss Animal Protection, which gathered the necessary 100,000 signatures to force the nationwide vote. It argues that despite big increases in reported animal abuse, the cases often fail to make it to court because they are not taken seriously enough by the local authorities.

Hansueli Huber, Swiss Animal Protection's director, said that his organisation received some 5,000 reports of animal abuse in Switzerland in 2008 alone. The figure was 1,000 up on 2007. "As long as the abuse of animal rights is considered a trivial offence, we will continue to get nowhere," he said.

Mr Goetschel has been Zurich's animal lawyer since 2007, a post created 18 years ago. He insists that it has had profound consequences for animal welfare. "It has meant that everyone, especially the police, the local veterinarians and the animal welfare organisations, now takes animal rights seriously." A confirmed vegetarian, Mr Goetschel developed his passion for animal rights while doing compulsory military service with the Swiss army.

"I had to look after a group of men and I grew so hoarse from shouting commands at them, that I had to have my vocal cords operated on," he said. "After the operation I was forbidden to talk for over 10 days. I suddenly began to realise what it must be like to be an animal – unable to communicate in a world dominated by humans."

His experience coincided with some legal work he was doing on a case involving battery hens, which shocked him into becoming fully committed to the animal cause. Since then, Mr Goetschel has worked on some grim cases, including malnourished pets and currently one involving the mutilation of three horses with knives.

Stiff opposition remains to the idea of animal lawyers operating countrywide. The government, which is dominated by the right-wing Swiss People's Party, has called on voters to reject the proposal and says that existing animal welfare laws are sufficient.

Predictably, a majority of farmers, hunters and pet breeders also oppose the idea, believing that it will result in more unnecessary legislation. Some have even formed a "No to the useless animal lawyers" campaign.

Mr Goetschel is nevertheless optimistic about the outcome of tomorrow's vote, believing it will send an important signal about the needs for better animal rights to the rest of Europe, including Britain.

"You may have your famous RSPCA but the organisation has no real legal bite, it is all about people in nice uniforms," he said. "With a noble tradition like that, I am astonished that the UK does not have its own animal-rights lawyers already."