Owners or guardians?

Cities change identity of pet owners, hoping to promote welfare
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In less than a year, three city councils have approved replacing "pet owner" with "pet guardian" in their municipal codes. The distinction is meant to codify the special relationship people share with their animals, while also encouraging them to think of their pets not as property but as sentient beings.

This past July, Boulder, Colo, became the first city in the country to replace all references to "pet owner" with "pet guardian." A few months later, two California cities followed suit. West Hollywood approved the word change on Feb 20, as did another California city, Berkeley, a week later. Berkeley chose not to omit "owner" entirely, however, but substituted "pet owner/guardians" instead.

That same month, a bill (HB 6119) was introduced in the Rhode Island General Assembly that would create a definition for "guardian" in the state animal cruelty law and use the word interchangeably with "owner."

The bill and revised municipal codes all make clear that the rights, responsibilities, and liabilities are the same for the guardian as they were for the owner, and that pets are still personal property. But supporters of the word change suggest it will engender better treatment of animals by reshaping how owners see themselves in relation to their pets.

"The significance is essentially symbolic," said Jim Hynes, assistant to Berkeley's city manager. "[The measure is] trying to change the way people think about animals, less as property, more as living creatures."

As was the case in Boulder and West Hollywood, the guardian ordinance passed the Berkeley City Council with relative ease. One reason is that its proponents say it promotes personal responsibility rather than granting animals any special rights or social role. Since the word replacement was a low-cost, symbolic gesture requiring no changes to enforcement programs, there was little reason for the city manager or the city attorney to object, Hynes explained.

Reaction from the veterinary community over the alternative wording is mixed, and it's still too soon to tell what effect it will have, if any.

There would have been more public resistance had the "guardian" term not expressed what many city residents believe to be true about their role as pet owners, observed Dr. Gary Patronek, director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine.

"The reason [the ordinance passed] is it's not a contentious issue," Dr. Patronek said. He predicts a relatively small number of city councils will make similar ordinance changes but, overall, there won't be a groundswell of popular support because it doesn't solve a particular problem.

On the other hand, Dr. John Hamil, former president of the California VMA and once vice-chairman of the AVMA Animal Welfare Committee, worries about the unintended legal implications of pet owners being identified as guardians. Lawyers may not share the public's view about what pet guardianship entails. "We could find ourselves as a profession, or as animal owners, caught in obligations that we had no understanding of, and certainly no intention of," he said.

Dr. James M. Harris, vice chairman of the AVMA Committee on the Human-Animal Bond, sees the issue as potentially exposing practitioners to a flurry of malpractice suits for allegedly failing to deliver the appropriate medical care necessitated by an animal's social value. In this scenario, practitioners would have to raise their rates to compensate for skyrocketing liability coverage; some clients would then be unable to afford even basic veterinary care for their pets.

"Words have power, words have meaning, and they are not to be taken lightly," Dr. Hamil warned, adding that it will be the courts that have the final say. "Be assured, somebody's going to try this on for size before long."

The California-based In Defense of Animals, an animal rights group that advocates abolishment of the buying and selling of pets, has been involved directly or indirectly in all three cities adopting the alternative language. Four years ago IDA began a campaign-"They Are Not Our Property, We Are Not Their Owners"-to elevate the social and moral status of animals from that of property to creatures with their own needs and interests. The group hopes to achieve this by changing the words society uses to talk about animals.

IDA made headlines in September 1999 when an animal advisory commission to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved replacing "pet owner" with "pet guardian." Although the board did not adopt the recommendation, the guardian message struck a chord in other cities.

"Now there's thousands of people in this country who are officially recognized as guardians, no longer as owners," said IDA founder, Dr. Elliot Katz, about the city councils that approved the alternative wording. Initiatives are already under way in other cities, he said.

But according to Gary Francione, professor of law at Rutgers University School of Law in New Jersey, the pet guardian initiative is "windowdressing" that lacks any legal bearing.

"Either the dog that lives with me is my property or she isn't," said Francione, who's specialized in animal law for more than a decade. "If she is, you can call me a guardian, you can call me whatever you want to call me. The bottom line, she only has the value that I give her because that's what property means."

A self-professed animal rights advocate, Francione believes society should be discussing the issue of animals as property, but that symbolic statements accomplish nothing. For the same reasons cited by Dr. Harris, he is concerned about what he sees as a growing number of veterinary malpractice suits he thinks are counterproductive to animal welfare. Francione, however, does not see the change as having substantial legal implications at this point.

"If you have a companion animal, nobody needs to tell you that you're a guardian because you already think that way anyway," he said. "But the other people who place a low value on their animals, you can talk about guardianship all you want, and it won't make any difference."