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.