Switzerland has been inciting all sorts of ire and indignation these last few months with their xenophobic ban on minarets. This Sunday, they’re likely going to cross a few more potential allies with their referendum on whether animals should be granted legal representation in the courts. The campaign, led by Swiss Animal Protection, “hopes that appointing attorneys to represent animals in court will lead people to take infringements upon animal rights and animal abuse more seriously,” reports Spiegel Online.
Spiegel Online devoted most of its coverage to an interview with Antoine Goetschel, an animal rights lawyer in Zurich. But though I’m buoyed to learn more about Goetschel’s work, what major media outlets fail to report is that prosecution of animals in the courts is nothing new. In For The Love of Animals: The Rise of the Animal Protection Movement, Kathryn Shevelow devotes an entire chapter to “animal crimes”—the prosecution and execution of animals that took place throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. She writes:
The cruelty often suffered by animals in these judicial proceedings was, in a sense, the price they paid for the symbolic humanness with which the trials endowed them. It was also a consequence of the related charges in sensibility that produced the rise of the animal protection movement—a movement that would be dedicated to, among other goals, bringing humans into the courtroom to answer charges of crimes against creatures that were deemed essentially “innocent,” rather than the other way around.
While animals are no longer executed for committing sodomy—an example noted by Shevelow—we seem to forget that animals are still put to death for certain crimes, like murder. There are often no legal proceedings; animals who have been mistreated and retaliate are marked as beyond rehabilitation and put down. Animals that have been branded by society as violent—certain dog breeds immediately come to mind—are often singled-out and punished, though it is often the direct result of our influence on their animal lives that causes discord between animals and humans in the first place. Since they can’t defend themselves verbally, we’re free to enact whatever “punishment” we deem appropriate. Strangely enough, death often doesn’t seem like an extreme choice to us.
So here’s the thing: while I fully support these kinds of referendums—which force people to discuss animal rights in the public commons—and think more animal rights cases should be represented in court, I have to wonder why a country can be so progressive on some issues of equality and so painfully ignorant and hostile on others. I also wonder in my typical cynical fashion if an animal rights referendum isn’t just one more way to insult Switzerland’s Muslim population, given the relationship between Islam and certain types of animals.
What gives, Switzerland? If all animals, human and non-human, are to be given the same rights, why exclude folks of specific religious backgrounds and persuasions? How do we reconcile giving more rights to one group while taking rights and freedoms away from another?