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…)

"Pet," "companion animal," or… "nonhuman companion"?

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

2009-03-06 - South Park Kelly 04

I started reading Joan Dunayer’s Animal Equality: Language and Liberation last night, and – true to form – I skipped ahead and leafed through the last chapter first. Such a cheater, I am!

As I mentioned previously, the book concludes with suggestions for improvement, including a list of problematic terms and possible alternatives, the use of which can help combat the speciesism embedded deep within our language. No doubt, readers will be familiar with many of the speciesist terms identified by Dunayer: “euthanize” vs. “murder” or “kill,” “bacon” vs. “pig flesh,” “animal research” vs. “vivisection,” “it” vs. “he” or “she,” etc. The list of problem words also includes a number of terms which initially surprised me: “brutal,” “bestiality,” “humane,” “neutered,” “spayed” – the list is long. While flipping through the thesaurus, it became clear to me that I’ve quite a bit to learn.

Still, I did a double-take when Dunayer singled out the term “companion animal” as speciesist a mere eight pages into Animal Liberation. For years, I’ve been using “companion animal” as an alternative to the more noxious (or so I thought) “pet.” “Pet” implies that Ralphie, Peedee, O-Ren, Kaylee, Jayne and Ozzy are simply here for my amusement – they’re my silly little play toys. (Similar to the ways in which “pet” has been used by men in reference to women: “my pet.”) But “companion animal” – that elevates the relationship, no? They’re not just “pets,” they’re family members, friends, equals. My dogs are my companions, and I, theirs.

Well, not so much, Dunayer argues. Word order and the exclusive use of the term “animal” are the well-intentioned term’s downfall.

Labels borne of exploitation indicate that nonhuman people exist for our use. Furbearer tags a nonhuman person a potential pelt. Circus animal suggests some natural category containing hoop-jumping tigers and dancing bears, nonhumans of a “circus” type. The verbal trick makes deprivation and coercion disappear. Companion animal reduces a dog, cat, or other nonhuman to the role of companion. Minus that role, the term implies, such an animal has no place; if they aren’t some human’s companion, or their companionship fails to please, they can be abandoned or killed. [8] (page 8)

[8] Companion animal is doubly speciesist. First, it turns “companion” into a trait, something inseparable from a nonhuman’s being; the term obliges certain nonhumans to be (and remain) some human’s companion. Second, it restricts animal to nonhumans. Nonhuman companion, nonhuman friend, and pet avoid these problems. Meaning “an animal kept for amusement or companionship” (American Heritage Dictionary), pet indicates a nonhuman’s situation without labeling them of a certain type. Whereas nonhuman companion and nonhuman friend declare a nonhuman animal an active, equal partner in a loving relationship with a human, pet suggests a less egalitarian, possibly exploitative relationship. Pet, in fact, bears longstanding associations of breeding, buying, selling, and discarding nonhuman animals. Unfortunately, pet’s negative connotations are in keeping with the plight of many dogs, cats, and other nonhumans who never receive the respect implied by nonhuman companion or nonhuman friend. For these reasons, I use nonhuman companion and nonhuman friend with reference to nonhumans treated with full respect; I use pet with reference to nonhumans who are sold, discarded, or otherwise disrespected (as in pet store); and I always avoid companion animal. (page 204)

One barrier activists face when trying to restructure their language to better reflect their ideals is convenience: oftentimes the more acceptable alternatives are awkward, unwieldy, tiresome – a mouthful. However, “companion animal” only requires a slight deviation – a change in word order, and a switch from “animal” to “nonhuman.” It’s rather simple, actually. Say it with me: nonhuman companion. Use it enough, and it’ll roll off the tongue!

But wait – there’s more.

(More below the fold…)

IDA: Write a Letter to the L.A. Times In Support of Guardian Language

Wednesday, April 4th, 2007

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: In Defense of Animals – takeaction [at] idausa.org
Date: Apr 3, 2007 11:08 PM
Subject: Write a Letter to the L.A. Times In Support of Guardian Language

On March 30th, the Los Angeles Times published a story about the recent Menu Foods “pet” food recall that has so far killed dozens of dogs and cats across the U.S. The article discussed how the deaths have prompted states to consider whether or not animal companions should be considered mere property under the law, and whether people should be able sue for emotional damages. Part of this debate concerns the language we use to describe people who have animal companions: that is, whether they should be defined as “owners” or “guardians” of the living beings in their care.

While the article raises this important issue for readers to consider, it fails to clarify the fact that IDA’s Guardian Campaign does not concern the question of animals’ legal status or their monetary worth in the eyes of the law, but rather the way we, as individuals and a society, regard our animal companions. Since 2000, 14 cities, two counties, and the entire state of Rhode Island have adopted guardian language. In that time, there has not been a single lawsuit or legal problem with the term, because these communities clearly stipulate in the wording of their ordinances that referring to people as “guardians” instead of “owners” has no bearing on animal companions’ legal standing.

Animals have thoughts, feelings, and experiences that give their lives inherent value. In addition, the emotional bonds we share with our animal companions make these interspecies relationships deeply meaningful for us and them. Dogs, cats, and other animal companions are living beings whose health, welfare, and lives we are responsible for. By using “guardian” language, we send a clear message that they have interests and needs of their own, and therefore cannot be “owned” like a car, TV, or other inanimate material possession any more than one could own a human being.

Guardian language reflects a change in society’s view of animals — a deepening appreciation of them as our friends and family members, and a greater concern for their welfare. A study commissioned by IDA showed that people who consider themselves “guardians” are more likely than self-defined “owners” to adopt rather than buy animals, have animal companions spayed and neutered, and generally provide their animals with more affection and better care. While opponents argue that guardian language will increase lawsuits against veterinarians, “pet” food manufacturers, and other businesses, they ignore the disrespect and abuse that the concept of animal “ownership” condones.

(More below the fold…)