On "owner" vs. "guardian": IDA’s Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey

March 26th, 2009 9:05 pm by Kelly Garbato

Given yesterday’s post, the Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey IDA highlighted in their latest newsletter is especially timely. In it, the group urges Oprah to refer to herself as her furkids’ guardian, rather than their owner:

I’m writing to you about language, a subject about which you care deeply—how words alter history, how movements are spearheaded by words. I’m writing about how words affect the forward march of animal rights and protection. (In Europe, the Swiss amended their laws to change the status of animals from “things” to ‘beings.”) I am writing about the transfixing power and importance of words and how they are the source of our very being. Words can stir us into action, mobilize nations. Words can also become weapons, arrows, enslaving, unconsciously encoding a certain kind of behavior. “Owner” has become such a word, with its patina of arrogance, compared to the more humane and humble “guardian.” “Owning” a dog has become a diminishing thing, an impoverishing thing, above all obsolescent, a term that has lost its usefulness, for our beloved animal companions are not things, property, or commodities to be “owned” and thus discarded like an old chair.

Your choice of books, always in some way about justice, compassion, and truth telling, has transfigured countless readers around the world. In a similar way, the idea behind using the term “guardian” when referring to one’s animal companions is built upon a deep and abiding reverence. Every time the term “guardian” is uttered instead of “owner,” it illuminates in the public consciousness the singular and profound bond that exists between human beings and their animal companions. It alters our perceptions of our personal relationships with animals and embraces the powerful idea that we respect and honor their essential value, feelings, interests, and lives. Implicit in the term “guardian” is everything that embodies responsibility, and thus we are creating the most treasured, the most lasting, and the most fundamental relationships with the animals who share our lives. This seemingly nuanced, almost imperceptible, but critical change in language elevates in our eyes our companions’ status from easily disposable property to individual being.

Guardians protect, guard, and preserve. Guardianship is about how people think and imagine and, thus, act. It reflects a refashioning of the way we look at ourselves and the animals among us—it’s a way of seeing the world anew.

Using the term guardian is infinitely more than symbolic—guardians are less likely to chain their animals or abandon them or betray them and are more likely to have them spayed and neutered and given appropriate veterinary care; they are more likely to adopt and rescue rather than buy and sell. Guardians are people who fervently reject dog fighting and puppy mills. Guardians recoil from exploiters and abusers. The term “guardian” refreshes the imagination and allows us to make distinctions—one thing is not another. An “owner” is not a substitute for guardian, where the bond between human and animal is a thing sacred.

There are now six and half million Americans in sixteen cities, two counties, and an entire state who refer to themselves as “guardians ” even on official documents, thus recognizing the true import of the word and our responsibility to our animals’ well being.

I hope the spirit of guardianship moves you to give it a public name. The word “guardian” exudes hope and promise for all animal lives.

I’m not quite sure what inspired the letter, though most likely Oprah referred to herself as an “owner” while discussing her recent adoption of Sadie, a Cocker Spaniel puppy, on air. (Oprah seems to have bad canine karma; reportedly, she adopted two pups this month, siblings who were both infected with Parvo. Ivan died, while Sadie is still recovering. Last March, her Cocker Spaniel friend, Sophie, died of kidney failure at the age of 13, which is tragic but expected. A year before that, however, her Golden Retriever, Gracie, died after choking on Sophie’s toy, which she wasn’t supposed to have access to. Sophie was only two years old.) That’s just a guess, though; frankly, IDA could’ve done a better job framing the letter and action alerts, but wev.

I didn’t much bother with the term “owner” yesterday, since it seems to be fairly well established in the animal advocacy community that referring to oneself as a non-human animal’s “owner” is a no-no. A big no-no. After all, animals are not property, mere inanimate objects to be bought, sold, and exploited – no matter what the law says. To claim “ownership” over another living being violates the most basic tenets of “animal rights.” So it’s no wonder, methinks, that the campaign to replace “owner” with “guardian” hasn’t met with much resistance, at least among like-minded animal advocates.

And yet. I have a sneaking suspicion that many of these same activists would scoff at suggestions that they stop using other oppressive terms, like “bitch” and “fur hag.” Because “they’re only words.” Or, “I didn’t mean it in a [-ist] way.” “I’m just venting, it’s doesn’t mean anything.” But the guardian campaign illustrates that, yes, words do matter. Language matters. It reflects our values, and shapes the way we think, the way we filter, process and perceive information. It enforces and reinforces negative perceptions, prejudices and stereotypes, on both a conscious and subconscious level. Whether you use an oppressive term with the intent to marginalize others, matters not – in doing so, you transmit these negative beliefs to others, and sustain them in your own mind.

Which is, I think, what IDA is getting at here. As far as non-vegans go, Oprah is fairly animal-friendly; progressive, even, at least compared to mainstream America. She probably considers “her dogs” friends or family members, rather than property or pets. Even so, a seemingly begin phrase, whether used out of habit or a slip of the tongue, tells her audience otherwise.


“My dogs.” “I own three dogs.” “I’m their owner.”


“My canine companions.” “I’m a guardian to three dogs.” “I’m their guardian.”


“My woman.” “I own three women.” “I’m her owner.”


“My wife.” “I have a wife.” “I’m her husband.”


Which do you prefer?

If the latter, you can learn more about IDA’s Guardian Campaign here.



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