Pets would be the main beneficiaries of a proposal to introduce special animal rights lawyers, according to campaigners.
They say there is a lack of consistent controls on farm animals despite obvious progress compared with the situation 15 years ago.
But farmers are opposed to an initiative, launched by animal rights organisations, and which will come to a nationwide vote on March 7.
“We have never said that every single breeder is in full compliance with the rules. There’s only one person who claims to be infallible and he is based in Rome,” says Thomas Jäggi of the Swiss Farmers Association.
Jäggi does not deny there are incidents of cruelty against farm animals. But the days are gone when shocking pictures of badly kept chickens, pigs and cattle upset the Swiss public at regular intervals.
Hansuli Huber of the leading rights group, Animal Protection, acknowledges the situation has improved not least because of stricter regulations.
“It is undoubtedly a result of the system of agricultural subsidies tied to ecological criteria,” he says.
A special panel of experts regularly inspects farms and can impose cuts in subsidies to punish offenders. However, the sanctioning procedure is flawed, according to Huber.
“The vast majority of the checks are announced in advance , even in the sector of organic farming,” he says.
Animal welfare groups have been calling for surprise checks by inspectors.
Only a minority of cantonal authorities carry out such inspections, and in most regions there are farmers who ignore the rules once the inspectors have left their premises.
Pressure has been mounting since the new animal rights law came into force in September 2008.
“There is already a double threat of sanctions. Farmers face possible fines and might also suffer cutbacks in subsidies,” says Jäggi. An additional threat in the person of an animal rights lawyer is therefore unnecessary, he adds.
He dismisses suggestions that special legal experts for animals are in the interest of farmers as they would allow them to prove that they have nothing to hide from the public.
“The aim of the animal rights campaigners is to criminalise farmers and increase the number of legal proceedings and court cases,” argues Jäggi.
The Farmers Association is concerned about a potential wave of unjustified denunciations by an army of snoopers, as well as a host of bureaucratic procedures.
“We do not want to set up a police state,” counters Huber of Animal Protection.
“We repeatedly said during the debates in parliament that animal rights lawyers are needed to grant better protection to pets.”
There is a striking lack of inspections in private households and a need to apply the law consistently, according to Huber. He says he knows of cases where judges turned a blind eye and cleared defendants despite evidence that could convict them.
Under Swiss law cruelty to animals is a criminal offence liable to public prosecution. But the veterinary offices in the country’s 26 cantons apply the law at their own discretion.
In Zurich, the first and only canton with an animal rights lawyer, more than 1,700 complaints have been filed over the past two years. Whereas the number of cases in other regions does not exceed an average of two per year.
Huber says cantonal vets trying to apply the law consistently are often the target of criticism by local politicians who publicly question the professional qualifications of vets or attack them on a personal level.
In other cases vets understandably lose their motivation to crack down on animal abuse when their political superiors give them little room for manoeuvre.
The hands of animal rights activists are tied in most cantons. Campaigners can file complaints at a local level but often with no visible consequence, according to Huber.
Pets could benefit most from animal rights lawyers nationwide, he adds.
The authorities would have to act swiftly and decidedly in suspected cases of animal cruelty. Offenders would be brought to justice and face punishment, says Huber.
“Farmers have no reason to fear the animal lawyer. They already have the inspectors checking on them,” he adds.
Andreas Keiser, swissinfo.ch (adapted from German by Urs Geiser)
The proposal to introduce animal rights lawyers is one of three issue that come to a vote on March 7.
The government as well as a majority in parliament have come out against it.
Only the centre-left Social Democratic Party and the Greens have recommended a yes vote.
The three other main parties decided against the constitutional amendment albeit with a fair number of dissenting voices.