The Swiss lawyer has been working for greater animal protection laws in his home country since at least the mid-1980s and is the third official animal rights lawyer in the Canton of Zurich since 1992, when the canton – roughly equivalent to a US state – established the office.
But on Sunday he received a crushing defeat. After months of campaigning in the local press for support for a referendum that would have required the creation of similar public legal offices for animal rights in each of Switzerland's 26 cantons, voters roundly rejected the proposal with 70.5 percent of Swiss voting no.
The reason there was so much opposition could be the result of a fish tale. No, not about one that got away. But about a mammoth 22-pound pike that Swiss angler Patrick Giger landed in February 2009. Though the key witness for the prosecution was unavailable (the pike was consumed by Mr. Giger and friends the day it was caught), the Zurich prosecutor asked Mr. Goetschel to look into the matter after Giger described a tough 10-minute struggle to land the fish in a local newspaper and a Swiss animal rights group complained of animal cruelty.
Goetschel recommended a prosecution on the charge that Giger had caused undue cruelty to the fish, and expanded on his reasoning in an interview with The Guardian newspaper last week.
"It was uncomfortable in the court as I had 40 fishermen against me," he told the paper. "But I ask you this: if we put a hook in the mouth of a puppy and did the same thing for 10 minutes, what would our reaction be? With farm animals there is a strict, legally enforceable time limit between capture and death, so why not with fishing?"
The pike case received widespread ridicule in Switzerland.
Goetschel doesn't prosecute alleged crimes of animal rights abuse or even recommend cases. Instead, his job is to work with local judges to ensure they fully understand local animal rights losses when cases are brought. He also recommends fines.
It's not the first time Goetschel has tangled with a fish case and lost. In 2008, he helped prosecute the producers of a game show that challenged contestants to catch guppies by hand from a small pool.
"If you treat fish like objects in a computer game, their dignity is hurt," Mr. Goetschel said of that case, according to The Wall Street Journal. The case was dismissed.
To be sure, the Swiss are in the vanguard when it comes to protecting animals from cruelty.
According to a translation of the Swiss Animal Protection Ordinance of 1981 hosted at the website of the Animal Legal and Historical Center, "primates, cats and dogs, with the exception of unsociable animals, must be kept together with members of the same species." An update of that law in 2008 got even tougher -- demanding that fishermen get sensitivity training, dog owners receive state qualification to receive a license to own a dog, horses be kept in close proximity to other horses, and that any animal considered social – including goldfish – must be kept with at least one other of its kind.