In A Word?
By Lawrence Carter-Long
As of this writing, seven cities, Boulder, CO; San Francisco,
West Hollywood and Berkeley, CA; Sherwood, AR; Menomonee Falls, WI;
Amherst, MA; and the state of Rhode Island have officially recognized
the important part animal companions play in our society by passing
legislation that incorporates the term “guardian” into all
their animal related ordinances.
The effort, launched by In Defense of Animals in 1999, was inspired
by the belief that the term “animal guardian” instills a
greater level of respect, responsibility and compassion towards the
animals with whom we share our lives, than the more commonly used phrase
Over 100 million dogs and cats are estimated to live in homes across
our nation. A poll of 1,269 people last year revealed that a whopping
97 percent planned to buy holiday gifts for their companion animals.
Furthermore, 12 percent of those polled had returned previous gifts
because their animal companions “did not like them.” But,
even in non-animal households, animals hold a special place in our hearts.
Sixty-seven percent of surveyed respondents, including people with no
animal companions, have helped a lost animal, or donated to an animal
At the University of Pennsylvania, social work services have been available
since 1978 to those who have suffered the loss of an animal and an estimated
one million dogs in the U.S. have been named the primary beneficiary
in their guardian’s will, so it should come as no surprise that
animals are “family members” to least 80 percent of the
households who have them, according to one estimate.
If these polls are any indication, dogs and cats are clearly much more
than property, objects or things to most people, and as such, proponents
of the ‘guardian’ campaign highlight the necessity of updating
our language to more accurately reflect this unique relationship.
“The word ‘owner’ is outdated and doesn’t reflect
the human/animal bond that exists in our culture today,” says
Jan McHugh, Executive Director of the Humane Society of Boulder Valley.
“[Use of] the word ‘guardian’ denotes a higher level
of responsibility towards another being. Although it is a simple language
change, we hope… increased awareness of the ‘guardian’
language will elevate the status of animals in our community. We will
use the word ‘guardian’ as another tool to fight animal
abuse and exploitation.”
Words have power. How we think and talk is a precursor to how we act.
By adjusting our language, we plant important seeds that influence future
behavior. Updating city codes to include the term “animal guardian”
means we’re a step closer to recognizing the unique responsibility
humans have in assuring an animal’s care and well-being. While
revising outmoded terminology does not alter one’s legal rights,
responsibilities and/or liabilities, the psychological and sociological
impact of revising our language advances our respect and responsibilities
to companion animals.
In terms of animal suffering, that shift seems essential.
Ed Boks, former Director of the Maricopa County Animal Care and Control
in Phoenix, AZ, and the new Executive Director of NYC Animal Care and
Control (see interview in this issue) agrees.
“Everything we do to enhance the human-animal bond minimizes the
likelihood of an animal being relinquished. I support ‘guardianship’
language as a powerful shift in the way we speak and think about the
companion animals that share our lives. By truly understanding what
it means to be a guardian, more animals will be adopted and rescued.
The guardianship initiative is leading to a better quality of life for
animals as individuals, not as property.”
Carl Friedman, Director of the San Francisco Department of Animal Care
and Control has stressed that, “It is my sincere belief that the
result of increased numbers of people thinking and acting as ‘guardians’
of their animal companions will lead to fewer cases of abuse, neglect
and abandonment and fewer animals being killed in our nation’s
In a nation where between five to seven million homeless animals are
killed annually, moving away from the notion that dogs and cats are
mere property, objects and thingsæand as such, easily disposed
ofæis a core element of the campaign.
Boulder County’s Daily Camera editorialized, “We’re
not declaring that all animals should be accorded the rights that humans
should enjoy. But as people know intuitively, animals should be given
more rights and respect than, say, a toaster.”
Given the staggering number of animals disposed of annually, it is a
difficult point to dispute, but support for the campaign goes beyond
animal careæit also addresses concerns we have for at-risk youth.
“The Guardian Campaign is important for educators to embrace because
it involves thinking critically about how we treat animals, promotes
respect and compassion for the more vulnerable among us and encourages
responsibility for our individual actions,” says Lisbet Chiriboga,
M.S.Ed., Executive Director, Humane Education Advocates Reaching Teachers
(HEART). “It can also be a motivation for students to engage in
peaceful, civic action. All these elements foster the positive character
development of children as well as a more compassionate world.”
In a successful bid to get guardian language adopted in San Francisco
city ordinances, Ed Sayres, former President of that city’s SPCA
and the President of the ASPCA in NYC, wrote, “The term ‘guardian’
accurately describes the relationship of perpetual care that is needed
to teach children respect, compassion and kindness for domestic pets.
Studies show children who learn compassion and respect for animals have
a better chance at becoming compassionate adults, responsible community
members and are less likely to behave violently toward others.”
These folks should know.
The benefits of adopting guardian language and the behavior changes
it can facilitate are far reaching, setting in motion greater transformations
such as: Helping end the unnecessary deaths of millions of homeless
animals in our nation’s shelters, curtailing the abuse of animals
by individuals and the puppy mill trade, better enforcement and strengthening
of animal cruelty laws, and raising children to become compassionate
and responsible adults.
What’s in a word? Quite a lot.
Lawrence Carter-Long is Issues Specialist for In Defense of Animals
and a Satya Consulting Editor. To find out more about the Guardian Campaign
and what you can do in your community, visit www.guardiancampaign.com.
In NYC and surrounding areas, write Lawrence at: LCL@idausa.org.