Owner Or Guardian: Which Are You?

What’s in a name?

Everything, according to animal rights activists engaged in an active, nation-wide lobby to forever abolish the word “owner” from the vocabularies of people who love their pets.

“The Guardian Movement,” begun in 1999 as the brainchild of the legal think-tank In Defense of Animals, has from the beginning espoused the notion that animals are not things, but sovereign beings. As such, they should enjoy the same legal rights and protections as people. As humans, our rightful place in a pet’s life is that of "guardian."

Boulder, Colorado, was the first city to go “Guardian.” The entire county of Marin, California (north of San Francisco bay), the state of Rhode Island and at least a dozen other cities have followed suit. Many more may change their city/state codes in the name of pet personhood.

On it’s face, “guardianship” appears to be a very egalitarian arrangement, one that would raise our collective consciousness and encourage more humane treatment of animal companions. Under this legal relabeling, however, lies the potential for muddied legal boundaries and chaos swirling around medical decision-making.

For example, you notice that Fido is not behaving as well as he usually does on your daily walk. To redirect him, you tug too sternly on the leash for one bystander’s taste. It is possible, under “Guardian” law, that the bystander could levy charges of animal cruelty against you and that Fido could be forever removed from your home. Fido then may be re-homed to another family by the city or state.

Also, as a pet’s legal “guardian,” you would not have the final say as to whether to humanely euthanize your pet should her medical condition deteriorate to the point where her quality of life was, in your judgement, nil. That determination could be made by, you guessed it,  the local government. The overall cost of medical care could become prohibitive - and the number of practitioners scarce - as veterinarians scramble to to pay higher liability premiums resulting from the pet’s elevation to human-like status.

Further potential confusion abounds as there is no clearly-defined line between animals that have customarily been thought of as pets and those that are largely regarded as a food source. Under “Guardian” law, are all animals to be treated as people? Are farmers now "guardians" of their herds and flocks, legally-bound to protect them from harm?

“The issue of guardianship is a sleeping giant,” Charlotte Larcoix, DVM, Esq, told Trends Magazine, “and it will have a very big impact on the relationship pets and animals have with their owners.” Lacroix cites the legal precedents associated with the guardianship of children as a not-so-hidden trap door into a pit of litigation. Who, ultimately, will define what is in the “best interests” of their pet?

Then there’s the whole issue about labels.

Consciousness raising is a good thing. However, a more compassionate label does not a more caring person make. 

In the hospital where I work, all employees are required to wear a pin that reads “I CARE.” The hospital director’s decree was intended to inspire all of us to serve to our utmost ability. Since the directive has been in place, however, I’ve noticed that those people already highly dedicated to service remained highly dedicated to service while those who were not did not magically convert to service. A pin (or a sandwich board . . . or a billboard) has no real power to augment the caring gene in a person already dedicated to serve or to implant it in one where it is conspicuously absent.

There’s no doubt that words have power. What we tell ourselves and others about who we are can shape the course of our lives - for better or worse - in enduring ways. This is just as true for the values we hold including our relationships to family, friends and our animal companions.

I believe that few would argue that companion animals are on par with physical possessions: a cat is definitely not a toaster and a dog in not an ottoman.

On the other hand, pets are not people. While they are sovereign beings, pets depend on us to make caring and thoughtful decisions on their behalf. These include how to train, house and incorporate them into the family fold. The fact that we can make these decisions does not make us “better” than our pets, it simply means that we have a capacity that they do not.

With every fiber in my being I believe that pets should be treated as every other member of the family. The fact that they often are not is why so many pets are surrendered when they age or become an “inconvenience” when their human’s life-circumstance changes.

But I also believe in a hierarchy to the family order - and that the humans are on top. This is not a statement of merit, but one of sheer practicality.

In my heart, I will always be my pet’s human parent. On paper, I am her owner.

This is one duplicitous arrangement I can live with.