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Animal rights get a boost

Swiss law now recognises that pets have feelings too (Keytone Archive)

Swiss law now recognises pets as living beings rather than as objects, granting them an improved status.

The revised legislation that came into effect on April 1 takes into account how society has changed its views on domestic animals.

In the past, pets had no legal status. But last year, parliament chose to follow the lead of animal-rights campaigners and accepted that animals were not simply objects or things, but had feelings.

The legislative changes mainly apply to pets, and no special provisions have been set out for animals used in scientific tests. Federal laws already cover the use of animals in experiments.

Lengthy battle

The law's introduction represents the end of a lengthy battle for some animal-rights movements.

"We were pleased with these changes after spending ten years demanding them," said Gieri Bolliger, a lawyer from the Animal Rights Foundation.

However, not everybody agrees that the legislation represents major change.

"It's nothing more than a cosmetic change," said Andreas Trösch of the Federal Justice Office. "We have just clarified the rules and adapted the law to our times."

The new law doesn't go as far as to grant legal rights to animals. "An animal can't, for example, inherit something from its owner," Bolliger told swissinfo.

Ownership

The modified legislation sets out new rules concerning the ownership of pets.

The beneficiary of a will must now take care of the deceased person's domestic animals, if necessary setting aside part of the inheritance to cover the costs, according to Trösch.

When a couple separates, the right of ownership will go to the person considered best able to care for the animal.

In another change, the owner of a lost animal will have just two months to claim his or her pet back, as against five years previously. The cantons are expected to set up within the next 12 months a special unit to help identify owners.

Another measure introduced on April 1 may prove to be more of a headache for Swiss courts. Pet owners can now claim "emotional" damages from the person who kills or maims their favourite animal.

Damages

Until now, any damages paid out were equivalent to the market value of the animal.

Just how much an owner will be able to demand remains open. "The courts will have to evaluate the impact," Bolliger told swissinfo.

"The degree of individual responsibility has to be decided before any damages are paid out."

The Swiss government is not planning to give animals any further rights at this time. Trösch told swissinfo the government would rather concentrate on offering animals more protection.

swissinfo, Scott Capper

In brief

New legislation giving animals improved status went into effect on April 1.

The changes apply mainly to pets, and not to laboratory animals.

The new law does not grant legal rights to animals.

When a couple separates, a decision will be made on who is best qualified to look after the family pet.

Pet owners can now claim "emotional" damages if another person kills or injures their favourite animal.

The cost of these damages has not been set, and the degree of personal responsibility has to be determined before any money is paid out.

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