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Are We Pet "Owners" or "Guardians"?

By: Alex Lieber

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A 100-pound pig, orphaned when his owner passed away recently, currently resides in a shelter located in southern Maine. The staff is fervently trying to find a home for this domesticated pig – not an easy task because this animal lived a pampered life. He was, for instance, used to sleeping in a bed with his beloved caretaker.

But if he is adopted out to a family, should his new family be considered his "owners" or his "guardians"? In Maine, for now, the pig is legally considered property, as animals are throughout most of the United States.

However, a growing number of communities – and one state – are changing the status of pet owners to "owner/guardians" or just guardians. The latest municipality to do so was the city of Sherwood, Arkansas, joining the California cities of Berkeley and West Hollywood, as well as Boulder, Colo., and the state of Rhode Island.

These cities and Rhode Island take the stance that no one has an inherent right to "own" an animal. Rather, people are guardians of their companion animals, who are unable to take care of themselves adequately because their environment has been altered to fit the lifestyle of people.

The argument may seem to be one of semantics at first glance, especially in today's world where pets are increasingly considered full-fledged family members. However, there is a tug-of-war under way between groups that feel animals possess certain inalienable rights (should not be considered property) and those who believe such campaigns are signs of extremists trying to impose their values on people.

Though they may not realize it, pets have come a long way in the last hundred years or so. They are still considered property in 95 percent of the country, but laws have been enacted to provide protection against abuse and neglect. Mistreating or neglecting an animal is becoming a serious offense – even a felony in cases with aggravating circumstances.
But should they be accorded a status other than pets? And what does it mean, legally, for a person to be considered a guardian rather than an owner? This article provides an overview of the welfare/rights debate.

It is dangerous to slap all-inclusive labels on any one organization because, like so many movements, there are different shades and sides to the same argument. But the debate over terminology is at its heart the fundamental difference between animal rights and animal welfare activists.

The Animal Rights Argument

The animal rights argument, at its core, holds that animals are not and should not be considered property. Groups such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and In Defense of Animals oppose any human claims on animals. Animals are not ours to buy or sell, use in experiments or as entertainment (as in circuses or zoos), or to be used as food or clothing. They should not be raised or kept on farms or enclosed in cages, zoos, etc. Eating meat is considered immoral and a crime against an animal's right to live out his or her natural life.

In the home, domesticated animals should not be considered pets. According to In Defense of Animals, one of the leading animal rights groups in the country, changing the language would encourage people to treat "companion animals as living feeling beings as opposed to mere objects or possessions."

Andrew Butler, campaign coordinator for PETA, explains that improving the conditions of animals – which PETA works toward – is a laudable effort, but only addresses the symptom of the disease, which is the exploitation of animals for human gain.

"In the legal sense, animals have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," he says.

Animal rights groups are wholly opposed to any selling or buying of animals, and stress that pets should only be adopted through shelters rather than purchased from breeders. Animal rights organizations oppose any form of deliberate breeding, and organizations such as PETA and the IDF are strong proponents of mandatory spay/neuter programs.

Butler explains that the domestication of dogs and cats makes their case a little different. In an ideal world, they would be free in the wild to live their lives according to the dictates of their natural behavior. But humans have altered their evolution through selective breeding, and domesticated pets have become dependent on people.

These animals still retain basic rights, Butler says, and should be afforded the status of companion animal rather than property. In 1995, a Summit for the Animals was held in San Francisco in which a resolution was passed to change the designation of pets to "companion animals," and more significantly, owner to guardian.

The animal rights movement argues that the primary benefit to changing the language is to change the perception of animals, and to strengthen anti-cruelty laws. They say that while animals are considered property, crimes against them are punished only in relation to their monetary value, not as individuals possessing their own rights.

The Animal Welfare Argument

The other side of the debate is characterized as "animal welfare." These groups also work toward improving the lives of animals, but do not oppose raising and using animals for food, fiber, labor and medical research to save human lives. They do not oppose the featuring of animals in movies, circuses and in many sporting events.

According to the National Animal Interest Alliance, one of the largest animal welfare organizations in the United States, "animal welfare requires humane treatment of animals on farms and ranches, in circuses and rodeos, and in homes, kennels, catteries, laboratories and wherever else animals are kept."

Animal welfare advocates contend that animal rights groups are working to end pet ownership altogether, as well as the involvement of animals in all human endeavors, including service animals for the blind, deaf and disabled.

(In his interview, Butler noted that technology can provide a better solution, other than service dogs, for the disabled. Animal rights proponents do not believe that dogs should be used in human-related occupations.)

Mary Beth Duerler is president of an affiliated organization called Responsible Pet Owner's Alliance. In an interview, Duerler argues that the ultimate wish of animal rights groups "is not clean cages, but empty cages."

"Animal rights is not about humane treatment," Duerler says. "It's about no treatment whatsoever. No pets, no zoos, no meat for food. A human and an animal are the same thing."

Duerler believes that changing language from "pet owner" to "guardian" is the most important step in the animal rights agenda because it will provide legal opportunities to achieve their goals through the courts. In its policy statements, the National Animal Interest Alliance contends that animal rights activists want to pass laws that "deprive citizens of the right to make ethical determinations about their relationships with animals" by transferring all rights and powers to courts and governments.

On the Front Lines of Overpopulation

The debate will continue, passionately in some parts of the country and more as an academic exercise in others. To the pig living in the shelter in southern Maine, the question is indeed academic. He is used to a loving home and living a life most pigs could not imagine.

The question is also something of an abstraction for the shelter's executive director, Steven Jacobsen, who runs the largest animal shelter in Maine.

He said, frankly and honestly, that while his staff holds differing opinions on the subject, they are all trying to take care of and place the thousands of homeless animals that wind up in the shelter every year. Including, Jacobsen said, that 100-pound pig that once slept in his favorite human's bed.

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