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January/February 2004
What’s 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 animal “owner.”

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 welfare organization.

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“The word ‘owner’ is outdated and doesn’t reflect the human/animal bond that exists in our culture today,” says Jan McHugh, Executive Director of the Humane Society of Boulder Valley.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 shelters.”

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 In NYC and surrounding areas, write Lawrence at:



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