By DEBORAH BALL
ZURICH—Swiss voters overwhelmingly rejected a referendum that would have compelled all cantons to hire lawyers to defend the rights of animals, a setback to animal-rights organizations.
According to preliminary results, 71% of Swiss voters rejected the proposal on Sunday, with the rest voting in favor of the measure.
The referendum was hotly debated in a country that has some of the toughest animal-welfare laws in the world. If it had passed, each of the country’s 26 cantons would have had to hire official animal lawyers—a sort of public defender—to represent pets, farm animals and wildlife in court.
Animal-welfare groups had argued that if people accused of mistreating animals can hire lawyers, the victims of such abuse are also entitled to representation.
The Swiss generally take civil liberties very seriously, whether animal, vegetable or human. Scientists must consider the dignity of plants before embarking on experiments. The country is also known for its right-to-die laws that draw hundreds of foreigners each year to Switzerland to kill themselves.
Yet for all the existing protections, Swiss Animal Protection, the group behind the referendum, says that officials rarely prosecute animal-welfare infractions and that the average fine—just 439 Swiss francs ($409) in 2008—is hardly a deterrent.
“We do have very, very tough laws,” says Mark Rissi, spokesman for the organization. “But in some cantons, judges aren’t applying the law to the fullest.”
Several cantons had just two animal-mistreatment cases in 2008. In a statement released Sunday, Swiss Animal Protection said it was disappointed by the vote, and urged authorities to step up their enforcement of animal-welfare laws.
Instead, the Swiss government had urged voters to reject the referendum, arguing the money should go to extra veterinary resources to uncover animal abuse. Switzerland’s powerful farming lobby also opposed it, arguing farm animals are already closely monitored by state vets.
Since the 1970s, Swiss animals have enjoyed greater protection than their brethren in most countries. In 2008, a 160-page law tightened animal-welfare laws even further, requiring, for instance, that prospective dog owners take a four-hour course before buying a pet.
The run-up to the vote threw the spotlight on Zurich, the only canton that has an official animal lawyer. Antoine Goetschel, the canton’s animal defender, has recently become a media darling in Switzerland thanks to his high-profile defense of the referendum.
Mr. Goetschel, 51 years old, is a vegetarian who has no pets and avoids taking medication because of his opposition to research on lab animals. He became interested in animal rights at 23, when an accident left him unable to speak for 10 days, helping him understand the plight of animals who can’t express themselves. He was a major advocate of a 2003 Swiss law under which animals are to be treated as sentient beings, not personal property.
Last month, Mr. Goetschel went to court in defense of a pike that had fought a fisherman for 10 minutes before surrendering, after animal-welfare groups filed a complaint alleging animal cruelty in the fish’s epic battle.
The case emerged after a local newspaper photo showed the fisherman proudly showing off the 22-pound fish—a scene that, to Mr. Goetschel, was reminiscent of a safari hunter with his foot perched on the head of a dead lion.
“It is this Hemingway thinking,” he says. “Why should this be legal when other animals have to be slaughtered in a humane way?”
Mr. Goetschel lost the pike case last month, but is considering an appeal. Any further court action would come too late for the fish, which has been eaten.