Are We Pet “Owners” or “Guardians”?

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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.

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