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

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

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.

(More below the fold…)