ZURICH—Last month, Antoine Goetschel went to court here in defense of an unusual client: a 22-pound pike that had fought a fisherman for 10 minutes before surrendering.
Antoine Goetschel, the animal lawyer for Zurich. The Swiss will vote on whether to compel all Swiss cantons to hire animal lawyers.
Mr. Goetschel is the official animal lawyer for the Swiss canton of Zurich, a sort of public defender who represents the interests of pets, farm animals and wildlife. He wound up with the pike as a client when animal-welfare groups filed a complaint alleging animal cruelty in the fish's epic battle with an amateur angler.
The case emerged after a local newspaper photo showed the fisherman proudly showing off the four-foot-long fish—a scene that, to Mr. Goetschel, was reminiscent of a safari hunter with his foot perched on the head of a dead lion. "It is this Hemingway thinking," he says. "Why should this be legal when other animals have to be slaughtered in a humane way?"
Mr. Goetschel is the only official animal lawyer in Switzerland, but that may be about to change. On Sunday, the Swiss will vote on a referendum that would compel all of Switzerland's cantons to hire animal lawyers. The rationale: If people accused of mistreating animals can hire lawyers, the victims of such abuse are also entitled to representation.
The Swiss government is urging voters to reject the referendum, arguing the money should instead go to uncovering animal abuse. Switzerland's farm lobby is against the proposal and argues that farmers are already closely monitored by state veterinarians.
To make their case, the referendum's supporters have thrown the spotlight on Mr. Goetschel, a voluble 51-year-old attorney and descendant of composer Sergei Rachmaninoff who has held the Zurich post since 2007 and who represented the pike.
Juggling a private practice with his cantonal job, for which he is paid by the hour, Mr. Goetschel handles about 180 animal cases a year. He points to stiff fines he has won—such as an 8,800-franc ($8,200) fine for a farmer who kept a dozen sheep underfed and without water.
It's the Law
In 2008, Switzerland enacted one of the most stringent animal welfare laws in the world. Some examples of the rules include:
Pet owners may not crop the tails of dogs or use sandpaper to line the bottom of a birdcage.
Puppies may not be separated from their mothers before they are 56 days old.
Birdcages must have horizontal bars so that the birds can climb.
Horses must not be tied up and must be kept in close enough proximity to other horses to be able to see, hear and smell them.
Hamsters must be kept in groups; ideally, owners should keep two or more females with one neutered male. Keeping only female hamsters is discouraged as they tend to fight without the presence of a male.
Similarly, owners of parakeets must keep at least two of them. It is preferable to have even numbers of the birds, as they tend to fight if kept in odd numbers.
Using choke collars on dogs is forbidden.
Cats must have contact with humans each day. If that is not possible, they must have contact with other cats.
Source: Swiss Ordinance on the Protection of Animals of 2008
Since the 1970s, Swiss animals have enjoyed greater protection than critters anywhere else in the world. Prospective dog owners here must take a four-hour course before buying a pet. Social species including birds, fish and yaks must have companionship. Bird cages and aquariums must have at least one opaque side to make the occupants feel safe. The law, strengthened two years ago, even specifies how to put down a sick fish: with a sharp blow to the head, or immersed in water mixed with clove oil dissolved in alcohol. You can't just flush them down the toilet. Serious animal cruelty is punishable by three years in jail.
If Sunday's referendum passes, animals will have the right to be represented by lawyers in court. If they cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed at government expense.
The Swiss generally take civil liberties very seriously, whether animal, vegetable or human. Scientists must consider the dignity of plants before embarking on experiments. The country is also known for its right-to-die laws that draw hundreds of foreigners each year to Switzerland to kill themselves.
Yet for all the existing protections, Swiss Animal Protection, the group behind the referendum, says that officials rarely prosecute animal-welfare infractions and that the average fine—just 439 Swiss francs in 2008—is hardly a deterrent. "We do have very, very tough laws," says Mark Rissi, spokesman for the organization. "But in some cantons, judges aren't applying the law to the fullest."
The debate has thrown the spotlight on Zurich, which had 224 animal abuse cases in 2008 — a third of all those recorded nationwide. Zurich officials established the animal lawyer office in 1992, and Mr. Goetschel is the third lawyer to hold the job.
The country's only public defender of animals, Mr. Goetschel is a vegetarian who has no pets and avoids taking medication because of his opposition to research on lab animals. He became interested in animal rights at the age of 23, when an accident left him unable to speak for 10 days, helping him understand the plight of animals who can't express themselves. He was a major advocate of a 2003 Swiss law under which animals are to be treated as sentient beings, not personal property.
Mr. Goetschel doesn't file complaints with courts, but he is charged with making sure judges, often unfamiliar with animal law, take the cases seriously by explaining the animal protection code, reviewing files and suggesting fines based on precedent. He can also appeal verdicts.
While he doesn't officially represent the campaign, Mr. Goetschel has become a media darling in recent months, arguing for the referendum on talk shows and in town-hall debates.
The majority of Mr. Goetschel's cases relate to abuse of household pets. He secured a 1,050-franc fine for a woman who abandoned two kittens in the street soon after buying them.
In one 2008 case, he represented some fish that had been placed in a pool during a game show during which contestants tried to catch them by hand, allegedly violating Swiss law requiring that animals be treated with dignity.
"If you treat fish like objects in a computer game, their dignity is hurt," Mr. Goetschel argued. A court, however, ruled that Zurich was the wrong jurisdiction for the case, and the defendants were subsequently cleared.
But opponents have seized on another fish tale—Mr. Goetschel's defense of the big pike— to argue that a mandatory public defender could make for absurd results.
The case revolved around the idea that the pike suffered excessively because of how long it took for the angler to reel it in. Mr. Goetschel lost the case last month, but is considering an appeal. Any further court action would come too late for the pike, which has been eaten.