In a country that already outlaws flushing goldfish down the toilet and protects "social" pets' need for company, Switzerland will vote Sunday on whether abused animals deserve lawyers.
Legal representation in cases involving mistreated animals has been compulsory since 1992 in the Zurich canton. But pet politics could be taken to a new level if voters extend the right to the other 25 mini-states.
Advertisement"It is not about Paris Hilton's dog now needing a lawyer to represent its interests," said Antoine Goetschel, Switzerland's only lawyer mandated by his canton in Zurich to handle animal welfare cases.
It is about protecting animals who are harmed by the very people who are meant to take care of them, said Goetschel who is "very happy" about the referendum debate.
The quirky lawyers-for-animals poll is a new example of Switzerland's "direct democracy" in which any citizen who collects 100,000 signatures from eligible voters can force a nationwide referendum on their chosen cause.
Why not beaten dogs or cats left freezing on a snowy Alpine mountain?
Among the 50 cases Goetschel is dealing with at the moment is one of a horse that was stabbed 30 times before it died.
Past cases of extreme animal lovers include a person who kept 150 cats but could not take care of them.
"The animal welfare attorney is such a visionary and wise instrument because the animal has a voice in criminal procedures against the person who usually has the responsibility for it," he noted.
The problem is that the animal has "no rights", unlike humans who can prosecute the person who has caused harm, said Goetschel.
Environment groups, the Green and Socialist parties are supporting the initiative. But the government, parliament and the country's biggest party, the far-right Swiss People's Party, are against.
The strongest opposition is in the countryside. "It will generate too much bureaucracy," complained Urs Schneider, spokesman for the Swiss Farmers' Union. "Switzerland already has existing laws to protect animals," he told AFP.
Switzerland has indeed one of the world's most comprehensive laws on animal rights, said Goetschel, who has researched legislation in several countries.
Under laws revised in 2008, people wanting to get rid of a fish cannot flush it down a toilet bowl alive. It must be knocked out, killed and then its body disposed of.
Sociable household pets such as budgies and hamsters cannot be left alone. Even sheep and goats must have at least a "visual contact with their fellows".
Goetschel said an offender could get a three year jail term, but this is rare, and most perpetrators can expect a small fine.
Goetschel and Samuel Debrot, who heads the Vaud canton's Society for the Protection of Animals, said the laws are meaningless if they are not applied.
"Unfortunately, this law is not applied with the severity that we would like. Most of the authorities consider the protection of animals as something less important," Debrot said.
Fines are too small to deter repeat offenders and public prosecutors are unlikely to appeal against unfavourable judgments, he added.
"If the state attorney gets a case on massive drug violation, and another on decapitated children and then two burnt dogs come in, he says 'what the heck'. I understand that," explained Goetschel.
"It would be more fair to give the animals a voice," he argued.
According to Goetschel, Zurich's experience of lawyers for animals had shown that the system can lighten the public prosecutor's load.
The canton paid 78,000 francs (53,000 euros/72,600 dollars) last year to him and his legal assistant for the service. Goetschel pointed out that this is far less than a typical lawyer dealing with other cases.
Debrot, who has headed his society since 1986, said animal welfare had become more important because of improved living standards but also because animals are a source of comfort for many.
"After the war, people were less interested, they had other preoccupations," he noted. But since the 1950s, interest in animal welfare has grown.
"Despite all that we do for human beings, there are many people who are unhappy, who are isolated, there are old people. But they have animals and they place their affection in their animals," he said.
A poll in November by the GFK research institute found that 70 percent of the Swiss support the proposal.
However, Debrot said the vote could be close, as the proposal needs an overall majority among eligible voters and also a majority among cantons.
Schneider predicted a "no" from smaller cantons, but added: "In the cities, it is a more emotional topic."
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