Voters should reject an initiative to give animals a constitutional right to be defended by lawyers, the government said on Monday.
The issue will come to a nationwide vote on March 7 after a leading animal rights group collected enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot.
If it passes, each canton must appoint an animal rights attorney. This person would have the power to influence cases that come to court to ensure, for example, that a proper investigation into an animal rights violation has been carried out.
However, Doris Leuthard, the Swiss economics minister who is also responsible for veterinary policy, said that the initiative is already obsolete since new animal rights legislation came into force more than a year ago.
“It is more important for the welfare of animals to apply the law than to enshrine a special attorney post into the constitution,” she told a news conference.
The 2008 law requires all cantons to create a special office to deal with animal protection. Violations involving animals must be reported to the authorities.
Leuthard said it has already proven effective since the number of reported violations has increased.
"Animals are often not kept properly or are abused in private homes,” Leuthard said. In these cases, an attorney would be ineffective since he or she would only have the right to take action once a violation had been reported.
The government is not against the idea of animal attorneys in principle, the economics minister added. But a constitutional amendment would create interference in cantonal autonomy, she said.
The current law does not prevent cantons from following the example of Zurich, which introduced an animal-welfare attorney in November 2007.
Animal welfare attorney
Antoine Goetschel currently holds that post. As an animal rights lawyer, he acts in court cases and in criminal proceedings on behalf of abused animals.
He said it's unfortunate but not surprising that the government has rejected the initiative.
“It's not very visionary of them and it shows a lack of motivation,” he told swissinfo.ch. “The interest is increasing though. Eventually Switzerland will say yes to animal welfare lawyers.”
Goetschel said he handles about 200 cases a year, largely in a supporting role for state attorneys who may not have animal-rights expertise.
The initiative “against animal cruelty and for better legal protection of animals” was submitted in June 2007 with more than 144,000 signatures. Swiss Animal Protection says current laws are too lenient but a majority in parliament has come out against the proposal.
"No one wants animal cruelty," Goetschel said. "People want to see the state taking the matter seriously though - not just SFr50 fines. After the minaret vote, it'd be good to have a positive outcome."
swissinfo.ch and agencies (with input by Urs Geiser)
On the ballot
Swiss Animal Protection, an animal rights group, has collected enough signatures for a people's initiative on creating animal lawyers in each canton.
A people's initiative allows every citizen to propose a modification of the constitution via a national vote.
The government has already rejected the initiative, saying there is already the legal framework for animal lawyers, but some parliamentarians support it.
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.
Fines meted out for animal abuse cases in Switzerland range from SFr400-SFr1,200 to SFr10,000-SFr20,000 for much larger cases.
There have been around 5,800 criminal cases of abuse in the last 25 years in Switzerland, but Goetschel estimates that abuse levels are about average for Europe.
Animal legislation was tightened in September 2008 which set out rules for the handling of sheep, goats and horses as well as for owning dogs and cats.