Lawyers for pets

By Legal Eagle

Long-time readers of this blog will know I’m fascinated by animals and the law. A while back I wrote a post on the topic of pets who are recipients of bequests, and discussed the possibility of a rich animal being better represented before the law than a poor human being. The dog in that post was the recipient of a US$12M trust fund.

According to a piece in The Australian, it seems that there is a move in Switzerland for the appointment of lawyers for pets and animals, but they draw the line at plants:

The country will hold a referendum next month on whether domesticated creatures should have the right to be represented by lawyers in court.

The alpine state recently changed its constitution to protect the “dignity” of plant life and made a law last year establishing rights for creatures such as canaries and goldfish.

If the referendum is approved, every canton in Switzerland will be obliged to appoint a lawyer to act for pets as well as farm animals and defend them from abuse.

“Humans can hire a lawyer or get one assigned but animals cannot do that,” lawyer Antoine Goetschel said. “Which is where I come in.”

In 2007, the canton of Zurich appointed him an “animal advocate” in an experiment the success of which has encouraged animal welfare groups to mount a successful campaign for a referendum to create similar officials all over the country.

The government is against the idea of animal lawyers, as are farmers associations and pet breeders, who fear stricter regulation if the motion is approved on March 7, and a group of political parties last week established a committee called No to the Useless Animal Lawyers’ Initiative.

“Animal rights advocates are useless to animals,” it said. “They can’t prevent animal abuse because they only get involved after it has been perpetrated.”

Mr Goetschel, a 50-year-old vegetarian, disagrees and hopes that the initiative passes with a big “yes”. Unlike the Middle Ages, when locusts and frogs were often summoned to court in Europe to answer for crimes such as infestations, animals are not requested to attend proceedings.

In court, Mr Goetschel acts much like a public prosecutor appealing for an appropriate sentence. It is his job to enforce legislation enacted in 2008 under which goldfish, canaries and guinea pigs are considered “social animals”, which must never be kept alone.

Goldfish tanks cannot be transparent on four sides since fish need shelter. Dog owners must take a four-hour course on pet care before they acquire their canine companion.

Mr Goetschel, who runs a regular legal practice, does not get involved in plant life, even if the constitution has been amended to recognise that plants are entitled to dignity, meaning that it is wrong, in the view of a government-appointed ethics panel, to engage in the “decapitation of wildflowers at the roadside without rational reason”.

The maximum sentence for animal abuse is three years in prison but the usual outcome is a fine. “Pet-keepers think that a so-called love for a guinea pig is enough,” the lawyer said.

“But this ignores the animal’s needs as a species, such as having a companion.”

How can an animal convey its instructions to its lawyer? Obviously a more intelligent animal such as a dolphin or a chimpanzee may be able to communicate with humans in a complex way. But guinea pigs? What if there’s a particularly anti-social guinea pig who wants to be alone (a la Greta Garbo). How does the lawyer know it wants companion guinea pigs?


  1. Benjamin Payne
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Asking questions about the legal representation of animals seems to me to ignore more significant questions about our justification for using nonhumans at all. As Gary Francione, Nicholas deB. Katzenbach Distinguished Scholar of Law and Philosophy at the Rutgers University, has said ‘I am not interested in whether a cow should be able to bring a lawsuit against a farmer; I am interested in why we have the cow in the first place.’

  2. conrad
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    There’s a thing called attachment theory in psychology (I’m personally not a fan of it), and it is typically used to describe the type of way people related to each other (secure, fearful etc.). I’ve now had to mark not one but two theses looking at attachment theory and people’s pets. Perhaps if this takes off, you’ll have an independent measure of how people relate to their pets.

  3. Posted February 1, 2010 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    Got an odd scenario.

    What if a “dumb” animals got pregnant after the will was written but before the owner died.

    What if another animal (not necessarily of the same species) wanted to adopt one of the products of that pregnancy?

    I’m thinking of the chimp that fosters tigers and orang utans (see If that chimp could sign like some other chimps, enough to express the will to be a surrogate parent…. perhaps signing “want cuddle puppy, want to be puppy mummy” on seeing a news report…

  4. Posted February 1, 2010 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    Asking questions about the legal representation of animals seems to me to ignore more significant questions about our justification for using nonhumans at all.’

    I use a non-human every day. My assistance dog receives the best food and veterinary care, indoor shelter, exercise and intellectual stimulation. He picks up items for me and responds to commands based on natural ‘play’ behaviour. Dogs for the Disabled came to my home and made sure it would be safe and comfortable for a dog before my application was even considered, and then spent several weeks training me to both work and take care of him. I understand that PETA have decided they’re against Guide Dogs for the Blind because “They may be treated cruelly in preparation for and during their lives of servitude.”

    Women who marry risk one day being beaten by their husbands, but I’ve yet to hear anyone use domestic violence as an argument for banning marriage or cohabitation. And while I find it difficult to explain exactly what my relationship is with my assistance dog, we’re called a “partnership” for a reason.

    I have conceptual issues with having lawyers representing the interests of animals as a) I’m not sure animals are aware enough to have an interest in the legal sense of the word and b) by extension are usually not considered culpable for the damage they cause. Admittedly, humans with an intellectual disability can have their interests represented by a special guardian similar to the swiss model but this is usually only after a failure of care by their family.

  5. conrad
    Posted February 2, 2010 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    God those PETA people are crazy sometimes. If they want to help animals, then they could start at mass farming, environmental destruction etc. Only after the cruelty to the billions upon billions of animals there has been solved is it worthwhile picking on guide dogs, people in animal labs etc. . Obviously these latter groups are just easy targets.

    Indeed, not that I’m a dog expert, but most guide dogs I’ve met seem pretty happy to me (it must be fun being a dog — woof. good. woof. chase ball. woof. eat. woof woof woof. Get pat. good. woof. hurt foot. forget about it. woof. eat .good. woof) — and it’s hard to think of a group that would treat them better given how significant they are to them.

  6. Posted February 2, 2010 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    I guess it beats pets for lawyers.

  7. Posted February 3, 2010 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    When I read the title of your piece I envisioned a Barrister in his wig and gown wearing a diamante collar and lead being taken for “walkies” by his proud owner.
    Slightly off topic I know but I just thought I would share that amusing vision with you anyway L E 🙂

  8. Posted February 3, 2010 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    I thought that you would like it LE 😀

  9. Posted February 3, 2010 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    Iain, I’m getting a good chuckle as well… and a mental image of the chihuahua in the first Transformers movie:

    Sam: You can’t put jewelry on a boy dog, you’ll give him a complex!

    Sam’s mum: But that’s his bling!

One Trackback

  1. By Skepticlawyer » Property and animals on May 9, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    […] I am rather fascinated by the idea of animals having legal rights, as can be seen from a series of previous posts: animals being restrained from trespassing, a goat held on suspicion of committing an armed robbery, Chico the delinquent macaque, Santino the delinquent chimp (who suffered a most awful punishment), potentially tortious dolphins, a dog named “Trouble” who received a large bequest under a will, and lawyers who represent dogs or pets. […]

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