The Swiss love a referendum – there's always some poster in the streets advising you whether to vote for or against some occasionally bizarre proposition. A few months ago it was whether to allow minarets to be built. Yesterday, it was on the question of whether to allow animals to have their own legal representation in court.
Switzerland already has some very rigorous animal protection laws. If you want to own a dog in Geneva, where we live part of the time, you must pass a course ensuring that your dog is socialised, does not jump up at strangers or create a nuisance in other ways. Conditions for animals in the farming industry are some of the most generous in the world, and very strictly applied. The legal step under consideration has been brewing for some time. A case was brought by the canton of Zurich against an angler who spent more than 10 minutes landing a gigantic pike, which died, presumably, in some pain. Should animals have their own advocates?
My immediate thought was that if an animal can be represented in court by a lawyer, there seems no good reason why they should not be subject to prosecution, too. It would seem anomalous that a dog who is mistreated in the canton of Geneva should have his own lawyer and representation in court, but that if that dog bites a child – there are 15 breeds of dogs that you have to obtain special permission to keep in Geneva – it is the owner who gets prosecuted.Direct prosecution of animals would not be a new thing. Pre-modern justice did not limit its attentions to human beings. In 1266, at Fontenay-aux-Roses, near Paris, a pig was tried for eating a child, and executed. In ecclesiastical courts throughout the period, animals were given their own legal representation, just as the Swiss now propose; for civil courts, in common with human criminals, this might not have been the case. Prosecutions were launched against pigs and large domestic animals in quite large numbers – the effort of hanging a guilty horse must have been considerable. But occasionally it was thought worthwhile to prosecute rats, snails, weevils and locusts. The 16th-century jurist Bartholomew Chassenee is said to have argued in one case that more time was needed to notify the rats of France of the trial date, and that they could not be expected to face in court their mortal enemy, the cat.
Some very interesting books have been published on this extraordinary phenomenon. They make it plain that the Middle Ages and subsequent eras took these prosecutions entirely seriously, and went through the immense palaver of mounting a full-scale trial of a plague of mice. Often, prosecutions of people taken in the act of bestiality were paralleled with cases against the animal partner. In 1766, a man taken in a sexual act with an ass was sentenced to death; the ass was, unusually, pardoned because of a certificate from the commune of Vanvres, stating that in four years the ass had shown herself to be of virtuous habits.Why on earth did they do this? Why should the Swiss now propose to bring a layer of legal representation into a matter which, after all, they've managed to run perfectly well until now?I don't want to be cynical, but the thought does arise that a legal system which is happy to arrest, prosecute and sentence a dumb animal for a "crime", and a legal system which is keen to act as the advocate of a dumb animal whose welfare needs some protection have one thing in common: they were, or will be, paid for it. Just a thought.