Tue, Mar 09, 2010 - Page 9 News List

The lawyer who defends animals

Are fish sentient beings? Can invertebrates suffer pain? These are the questions that regularly exercise the world’s top animal lawyer, Antoine Goetschel

By Leo Hickman  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

When Patrick Giger, a 34-year-old angler from the Swiss village of Horgen, cast his baited line into Lake Zurich’s storm-swollen waters on an icy February morning last year, he could not have forecast the trouble he would end up reeling in alongside the 10kg pike that was soon to snare itself on his hook. The day ended with the monster fish being devoured by Giger and his friends at a local restaurant, but just a few months later Giger would face, on the instructions of the state prosecutor for the canton of Zurich, criminal prosecution for causing excessive suffering to the animal after boasting to a local newspaper that he had spent about 10 minutes, and exerted considerable physical effort, landing the fish.

The pike has gone on to become something of a poster child for the animal rights movement in Switzerland. It has even attracted more than 6,000 “fans” on a Facebook page set up in its memory. The fate of this fish, however, also acts to highlight the political divisions in Switzerland over just how far to push its animal rights legislation, already hailed as arguably the toughest anywhere in the world. The ultimate test came on Sunday when the country decided in a referendum — or “people’s initiative” — against an animal being represented by a lawyer during any criminal trial in which it is judged to be the “victim.” The canton of Zurich has had just such a lawyer — or “animal advocate,” as the incumbent prefers to be called — since 1991, but the campaigners who garnered the 100,000 signatures required to automatically trigger a national referendum hoped animal advocates would be required by law in all 26 cantons.

Antoine Goetschel, Zurich’s animal advocate since 2007, acted in court on behalf of the pike two weeks ago when Giger’s trial finally came before a judge. Giger was acquitted, but Goetschel is still hopeful that when the judge finally submits his written summary of the trial in the coming weeks, he will clarify what time-length is acceptable for a fisherman to land a fish.

For some in Switzerland, the apparent absurdity of a dead fish having its own legal counsel — let alone placing such a legal time limit on anglers — displays that the animal rights agenda has now gone too far. However, supporters of the referendum argue that this strikes at the very ethical and philosophical heart of animal rights: Why shouldn’t an animal, they argue, have the same legal right to representation as any other victim in a criminal trial? When you open that particular Pandora’s box, a whole slew of other chewy questions follow. For example, do all animal species deserve equal rights? If an elephant deserves a lawyer, what about that defenseless slug squished underfoot by a vengeful gardener? Such questions have been troubling moral philosophers for centuries, but it could soon have a practical application in all of Switzerland’s criminal courts.

“Are fish sentient beings or not?” asks Goetschel rhetorically, as he thumbs the shelves of his law firm’s library, located in downtown Zurich not much more than a fly cast away from the lake where his client once swam.

“This is the sort of question I am asked to consider in such cases. This fisherman was boasting that it took him around 10 minutes to bring in the pike. The state attorney asked me to look into it. This is my job. I found a case judgment in Germany that said anything over one minute is too long so I used this as evidence. It was uncomfortable in the court as I had 40 fishermen against me. But I ask you this: 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 fishing?” he said.

This story has been viewed 4478 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top