Owner vs Guardian

I was recently asked where I stand on the “owner” vs “guardian” issue. If you’re unfamiliar with this debate, let me fill you in. The animal rights group, In Defense of Animals has been pushing a campaign to change the legal terminology of various cities and states from pet owner to pet guardian. They say that this change would elevate pets from the status of property to that of companion and beings with rights, like humans.

They further suggest that by changing our legal definition there would be a decrease in animal abuse and abandonment along with reduced numbers of puppies being born in puppy mills.

I have gone ‘round and ‘round in my head on this issue. While I agree with the desired end, I’m not completely comfortable with the means. I want people to see their pets as more than property. I not only want puppy mills to stop producing puppies, I’d like to see a temporary halt to all breeding. And of course I’m all for the reduction or elimination of animal abuse and abandonment.

What I’m not sure of is the effectiveness of trying to legislate new belief systems and social attitude. We’ve seen with the political correctness movement that changing what we call things or people doesn’t necessarily change anyone’s feelings about those things or people. A racist is still a racist even if they use socially acceptable language.

The Oregon Veterinary Medical Association said it very well on their website.

“…there is nothing to suggest that changing the definition from “owner” to “guardian” would lead to better treatment of animals. People who mistreat animals are going to do so regardless of their legal status: a “bad owner” would undoubtedly be a “bad guardian.”

Many veterinary associations and the American Kennel Club are worried that there is a less benign agenda behind the seemingly innocent and well-intentioned guardian campaign. There are concerns as to how pet owners’ rights will be affected by a change in their legal status. While very few of us consider our dogs to be nothing more than personal property, having them essentially recognized as wards of the state could interfere with our basic pet-owning decisions. In legal terms, guardianship is usually overseen by the courts. It is much different from ownership.

So, while I’m still exploring my thoughts on the subject, for the moment I’m not supportive of any legal changes. I do like the idea of thinking of myself as a pet guardian. I love the idea of society recognizing that pets are more than just personal property; that they are sentient beings with feelings, needs and individual personalities. More than anything, I would love for the “puppy trade” to come under scrutiny, as we take a look at our societal view of dogs as a commodity.

I would prefer that the advancement of the humane and respectful treatment of animals be brought about through education and awareness. You know, it’s kind of like the difference between suppressing a dog’s aggressive behavior through punishment and using classical conditioning to actually change how the dog feels about something. By using the court system to force “guardians” to treat animals differently, we may be able to legally suppress some human activities and behaviors. But I believe it would be better to use education to actually change how people feel about animals, thereby changing how those animals are treated.

I'd love to hear the opinions of others, as I do think that the biggest advantage of the guardian campaign is its power to spark contemplation and discussion about how we see, feel about and treat our pets.

So what do you think? Are you your dogs owner, guardian, both, neither? Let us know!

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