Lawyers eh? They push into every aspect of life, charging sky-high legal fees to represent us in work disputes, divorce and house sales. If your hedge is too high or your music too loud, your neighbour may dash off to get legal representation.
And now the people of Switzerland may have to double-check the way they treat their pets. In March 2010 they vote for or against giving animals their own lawyers. If the vote is Yes they’ll be trying to figure out if that look in Fido’s eye says “I love sausages” or “I’ll see you in court”.
Legal representation for animals is already established in Zurich but would extend to the whole country. If that would be good news for mistreated animals it would also be a field day for lawyers.
Zurich’s animal advocate Antoine F. Goetschel is Europe’s only animal lawyer and says the move would mean abused animals are properly represented in court. Opponents say animals already have adequate legal protection and funding lawyers for them would simply hand wads of public money to eager animal rights lawyers.
Goetschel has already defended the rights of a dead fish in court, arguing that it suffered on the fish hook for 10 minutes. (He lost.)
“Are fish sentient beings or not?” he asks rhetorically. “If we put a hook in the mouth of a puppy and did the same thing for 10 minutes, what would our reaction be? With farm animals there is a strict, legally enforceable time limit between capture and death, so why not with fish?”
And he would go further:
“The 2008 law only protects vertebrates” he says. “Invertebrates are deemed not to suffer pain so were left out. Five classes are covered by the law: birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and fish. This only accounts for 5% of the animal world. But securing the ‘dignity of plants’ has now even been discussed. It can lead to interesting dilemmas. For example, what about the scientist who is trying to make a flea with 12 eyes? Who is representing the dignity of this creature?”
Legal representation for a flea? What? – is it April the 1st? This has to be a blatant attempt by the legal profession to open a goldmine of public money?
Not at all, says Goetschel. He earns around 150 dollars an hour for representing animals while he charges humans more than twice as much. The Swiss government, ie. the Swiss taxpayer, pays him.
Legal representation for animals has made great headway in Switzerland in the 21st century. In 2008 a new Swiss law detailed precisely how different species must be looked after by their owners. It applies to pets as well as livestock. A rabbit, for example, must have a hutch with minimum dimensions and a space in which to dig. Dogs “must have daily contact with humans…and other dogs”. They must be free of chains for at least 5 hours a day and walked daily. Owners must take educational courses before and after buying dogs and must provide ‘dog-specific’ food and separate areas for eating, sleeping and toileting.
Goetschel is delighted that the dignity and legal rights of animals are established in Swiss law. So is Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and author of “Animal Liberation” which promoted animal rights in the 1970s. “I have always argued” he says “that it should be possible for animals to be represented in court by guardians, or lawyers acting on their behalf, much as we do for people with disabilities.”
Swiss zoologist Eva Waiblinger agrees. A supporter of the 2008 legislation and legal representation for animals, she worries that other countries are so far behind Switzerland on animal rights.
“[In] London recently I was shocked to see puppies and kittens for sale in Harrods” she says. “They even had plastic hamster balls which you put on the floor and watch the hamster running inside as the ball rolls around. If I’d seen this in Switzerland, I would have gone to the police.”