The Gate        Return to regular view

We Are Guardians
People Who Adopt Animals Need Recognition for Acting Ethically
Elliot Katz
Thursday, September 2, 1999
1999 San Francisco Chronicle


THROUGHOUT HISTORY, our greatest thinkers, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Alice Walker, Albert Einstein, Cesar Chavez and Albert Schweitzer, have expressed a deep concern for the rights and well-being of animals and urged others to view and treat animals as more than resources for humanity.

Yet human civilization inflicts great harm and suffering on the world's creatures through industries and attitudes that exploit them. The response to this institutionalized injustice to animals was the catalyst of the animal rights movement, a movement of millions who seek respect, justice, compassion and rights for animals.

In this spirit, In Defense of Animals (IDA) approached the San Francisco Animal Control and Welfare Commission on August 12 with a formal request to add the category of "animal guardian" to existing laws as a means of recognizing those who have made the ethical decision to adopt or rescue an animal instead of buying one.

In doing this, our ultimate goal is to elevate the status of animals from that of property to that of individuals with needs and rights of their own. Our immediate goal is to expand on existing laws to recognize a respectful relationship between two individuals of differing species, rather than maintaining the tyranny of an "owner" over "property." This new category of "animal guardian" will encompass the same legal rights, responsibilities and liabilities of an "animal owner."

Outlandish? Possibly. But to more than 130 animal protection organizations and thousands of people who have already pledged to be guardians, adoption of this concept is the first step toward legally recognizing companion animals as something more than property.

Just another example of politically correct zealots? Not if you consider that on September 25, the New York Bar Association will hold its fifth annual conference on animals and the law to discuss "The Legal Status of Nonhuman Animals." This conference, and the rapid increase of animal rights law courses being offered at Harvard University and Hastings College of the Law in San Fransciso, is a direct result of a public outcry demanding that the legal system align itself with a social ethic that is already redefining the relationship between humans and animals.

As a veterinarian, and president of In Defense of Animals, I am all too familiar with the terrible injustices, exploitation, cruelty and abuse perpetrated on innocent animals because they are perceived of and treated as mere property in the eyes of the law. If one is not familiar with the horrors of the puppy-mill industry, not familiar with the millions of animals who are killed because they shed too much, bark too much or can't run fast enough to compete in greyhound races, then one cannot fathom the harm that befalls loving beings because far too many people see their animals only in terms of the benefit the animal brings them. When that benefit has somehow diminished, those animals are often callously and cruelly killed.

What might be lost by recognizing people as the "guardian" of their companion animals or by you declaring yourself the "guardian" of your animals: nothing.

What will be gained? Animal guardians will gain recognition and legal status for doing the right thing -- working to end institutionalized oppression of animals. Animals will gain by legal precedents being set that will help protect them from oppression, mistreatment and abuse by being recognized as something more than mere commodities to be bought, sold and discarded at an "owner's" whim. Fewer animals will be bred and more animals will be adopted, thereby greatly reducing the number of homeless animals and animals killed in our nation's shelters.

It was only after slaves, women and children were legally recognized as individuals and not as property that society afforded them rights. It is time for the city named for the patron saint of animals to recognize the rights of people who adopt and don't purchase individuals with interests and needs of their own. It is the right thing to do for people and it is the moral thing to do for animals.

Veterinarian Elliot M. Katz is the founder and president of In Defense of Animals.

1999 San Francisco Chronicle   Page A29