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?