The swan – dubbed Nelson after Nelson Mandela – was seen swimming on Lake Geneva near Vevey in the canton of Vaud over the past few months, an unusual sight given the bird is a non-native species usually found in Australia.
Probably bred in captivity, it was unclear how the swan ended up in Vevey. A tag on its leg did not reveal its owner, and nobody came forward to claim it.
The situation was a concern for the Vaud cantonal authorities, who took the decision on May 27th to capture the bird to check it for diseases it could potentially pass on to native swans.
After a period of quarantine, the swan would be given to a zoo or animal park rather than released back to the lake, Frédéric Hofmann, responsible for animal welfare in the canton, told newspaper Le Matin at the time.
The decision caused uproar amongst the public, with many people expressing their anger on a Facebook group set up to campaign for the bird's release.
“It's hurting no one, this swan. I've seen it for the past five months in Vevey – if it wasn't accepted by the others it would have gone somewhere else long ago,” said one commenter, before criticizing the decision to put it in captivity.
Speaking to the paper, the person behind the Facebook group said: “We have been deeply moved by its brutal and incomprehensible capture. It's perfectly adapted [to the lake] and seemed very happy. We don't understand the need to quarantine it and then put it in a zoo.”
The emotion surrounding the case caused the authorities to change their mind, and the bird was finally released back into Lake Geneva last week by the head of Vaud's environment department, Jacqueline de Quattro.
But now a Swiss animal protection group has questioned the action, saying the bird's re-release could be illegal.
Speaking to NZZ am Sonntag at the weekend, Francois Turrian of BirdLife Suisse said since the bird was a non-native species there was a “risk of competition with indigenous species”.
“That's why the federal law on the hunting and protection of birds and wild animals forbids the reintroduction of such an animal into nature. Its place is in a park,” he said.
In this particular case, black swans are not able to reproduce with native species, so there is little risk.
However the action by Jacqueline de Quattro was a “bad example” that could push the owners of other exotic animals – such as tortoises – to release them into the wild without thinking of the damage they could cause, Turrian told the paper.
“We don't understand why, if not for an electoral reason, a cantonal councillor would decide not to follow federal law.”
On Monday de Quattro defended her actions, telling the press that since ‘Nelson' can't reproduce with native species he therefore will have no impact on biodiversity.
“I absolutely dispute the suggestion I showed a bad example,” she said, saying that the swan was very different to other cases involving exotic animals.