The campaign to change the term “owner” to “guardian” is intended to better reflect humans’ relationship with and responsibility toward companion animals, and to recognize animals as separate and unique entities deserving of protection and respect. By viewing animals as more than mere property, the focus shifts from the ownership interest in the animal to what is in the best interest of that individual animal. This altered view of animals necessarily requires that we treat them with greater respect and compassion and a higher level of care. In turn, our relationship with the animal becomes one of a “caretaker,” whose sole responsibility is to protect and nurture the animal, rather than an “owner,” who has title to and dominion over the animal for the owner’s enjoyment and benefit as he/she sees fit. The result of this paradigm shift will foster better protections for animals, as well as the development of a more respectful and humane society.
To fully recognize this new relationship between humans and animals, laws must change accordingly. Converting “owner” to “guardian,” however, is more than semantics. It raises many important questions regarding society’s duty of care toward and use of animals. For example, can we continue to use animals in medical research and for human consumption and still consider ourselves their guardians? These practices certainly are not in the animals’ best interests, nor do they respect them as separate and unique entities capable of experiencing pain, fear and suffering. What, then, is our duty of care toward animals whom we exploit for human interests? Likewise, where there are conflicting guardian views as to the best interests of an animal, whose view takes precedence? Finding answers to these issues will be difficult and will certainly raise questions regarding the status of animals in society.
While the legal status of animals remains to be resolved, the ASPCA recognizes that the cultural and social relationship that humans have with animals clearly transcends that of property, and is better reflected by the term “guardian” than by the term “owner.” The ASPCA therefore advocates the use of the term “guardian.”