The rising number of cases of animal abuse has highlighted the need for a coordinated nationwide approach to the problem, according to campaigners.
An increase of convictions by nearly a third in 2009 compared to the previous year shows that the Swiss are reporting more offences rather than treating animals worse, experts believe. But a report shows that cantons have different standards in applying rules.
Statistics published by the Association for Animal Rights on Thursday reveal that 955 cases of animal neglect or cruelty were committed in 2009 – 31.8 per cent more than in 2008. The number represents an all-time high and is part of an increasing trend of convictions in the last five years.
“This shows that society has greater expectations that cases are properly investigated and that offenders are punished,” Zurich animal welfare attorney Antoine Goetschel told swissinfo.ch. “We are not seeing more cruelty, but if people look more carefully then they see more.”
But the statistics also show that the rate of detection and conviction varies wildly from canton to canton.
Canton St Gallen saw a huge rise in convictions – from 146 in 2008 to 244 the following year. Canton Lucerne, by contrast, saw the number of cases drop from 38 to seven.
The Association for Animal Rights believes this demonstrates a marked difference in attitudes towards measuring and dealing with such offences.
St Gallen’s statistics reveal the list of charges rather than the number of individual offenders that other cantons publish. The decreasing number of convictions in Lucerne can be explained by the authorities preferring to deal with offenders outside of the courts, according to the Association’s Michelle Richner.
“In other cantons the police say they have more important things to deal with than offences against animals,” Richner told swissinfo.ch. “We want them to think differently.”
The Association for Animal Rights is therefore demanding a nationwide review of procedures to force cantonal authorities and police forces to take more concerted action.
The organisation also wants the severity of fines to be increased to at least SFr800 ($812) in most instances and a minimum of 60 days’ worth of the offender’s earnings for more serious cases. In 2009, offenders paid average fines of SFr411, or 42 times their daily earnings.
“We are not happy because the punishments should be higher,” said Richner. “Compared to speeding fines, the punishment for animal cruelty is not proportionate enough.”
The harmonisation of enforcement of animal welfare legislation was dealt a blow in March when voters turned down an initiative that demanded the introduction of animal lawyers across all cantons.
Worse still, canton Zurich politicians voted in amendments to its civil and criminal code a month later without realising that the changes would make their animal welfare attorney redundant.
Groetschel will now be forced to stand down from his post at the end of the year, having served as Switzerland’s first and only dedicated cantonal animal rights lawyer since 2007.
But Groetschel is adamant that the rising tide of emotion against animal cruelty can still make a difference even without cantonal lawyers dedicated to the task of protection and enforcement.
“In the 25 years that I have been involved in animal welfare I have witnessed a worldwide heightening of interest in the subject,” he told swissinfo.ch. “It is not just animal welfare organisations that want to talk about the issue, but society at large.”
“Public pressure is growing and I am convinced that those cantons that have been sleeping will be forced awake.”
Animal abuse statistics
The Association for Animal Rights has compiled a database of 7,476 convictions in Switzerland since 1982.
Last year, 955 cases were prosecuted, up 31.8% from 2008.
St Gallen was the canton with the most convictions (244) but the number indicates separate charges rather than individuals.
Next on the list is canton Bern (196) followed by Zurich (172) and Aargau (83). There were no recorded cases in cantons Uri and Glarus in 2009.
The average fine imposed for convictions was SFr411, down from SFr439 in 2008. For more serious offences, an average financial penalty of 42 days’ earnings was imposed in 2009, up from 35 days in 2008.
There are an estimated seven million pets in Switzerland. Cats are the most popular, followed by dogs. There are more than 11 million farm animals.