Switzerland is well on its way to becoming the most dignified country in the world, after its federal parliament decreed that goldfish must be protected against abuse. From September 1, aquariums must not be transparent on all sides so that the fish can live in a natural cycle of day and night. Not only goldfish, of course. The new law applies to all "social animals", which will be regarded as victims of abuse if they do not live with others of their own kind. It will be against the law, for instance, to keep only one guinea pig or budgerigar.
The new law is particularly zealous about protecting dogs. Prospective owners will have to pay for and complete a two-part course on the theory and practice of dog ownership. Anglers will also be required to take a course on handling fish humanely. Farmers will no longer be allowed to tether horses, sheep and goats and pigs and cows may not be house in areas with hard floors.
Dignity of plants
Other recent legislation deals with the dignity of plants. This is a rather woolly concept but new guidelines from the Swiss federal government’s ethics committee on biotechnology mean that research projects which offend the dignity of plants will not be funded. Swiss scientists are worried. The Swiss Constitution requires "account to be taken of the dignity of creation when handling animals, plants and other organisms". The body in charge of interpreting this Delphic utterance, the Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology, has released a thought-provoking discussion paper about what should be done.
Amongst its conclusions are the following: that "decapitation of wild flowers at the roadside without rational reason" is "morally impermissible" and that plants cannot be completely instrumentalised or owned. On the other hand, most of the committee believes that genetic modification and patenting of plants is ethical. Why? If the self-preservation of humans is at stake, any action towards plants is permissible, at least in the opinion of most, not all, of the members of the Committee.
What will the neighbours report?
The Swiss are notoriously exact in enforcing their laws and regulations, but Economics Minister Doris Leuthard is reassuring: "We don't want a state which spies on its citizens. We are not going to have the police searching individual households to see how your pussycat is doing and checking there are there are two of them in a household." However, she warned that "if serious abuses of animals are reported the cases have to be taken seriously." Hence, each canton will set up a specialised animal protection service and will publish regular reports.
How human beings fit into the Switzerland's zeal for enforcing dignity is puzzling. It is one of the few countries in the world where assisted suicide is legal. Suicide tourism has even become a boutique industry there. However, Swiss lawyers may discover some legal synergies as they wend their way through the thickets of "dignity". Existing regulations for assisted suicide for people could help to refine the details of euthanasia for goldfish. As with humans, special chemicals are required; flushing them away is no longer an option. ~ London Times, Apr 26; Nature, Apr 24; SwissInfo, Apr 14; SwissInfo, Apr 23