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Animals Aren't Property, Pet Activists Proclaim

Rights: Protectors say people should be 'guardians,' not 'owners.' L.A. City Council would have to sign off on wording change.

July 09, 2002|SEEMA MEHTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thousands of pets across Los Angeles might soon find themselves no longer straining under the yoke of "owners." Denouncing the word as demeaning to pets, animal-rights activists are urging the City Council to strike the term from local codes and replace it with "guardian."

Prodded by In Defense of Animals, a rights group based in Mill Valley, Calif., the Los Angeles Animal Services Commission last month unanimously voted to replace the term in its documents and conversations. On July 22, the three members of the commission will consider whether to urge the City Council to make the policy citywide.

"It's not a tidal wave of cataclysmic change that people are going to be thinking of pets as human children or anything like that," said commission President Paul Jolly. "It subtly moves the thought process so that animals are treated as sentient beings that deserve our respect."

If the council goes along with the change, the city will join in the "pet guardian" camp the state of Rhode Island and the cities of Berkeley; West Hollywood; Boulder, Colo.; Amherst, Mass.; Sherwood, Ark.; and Menomonee Falls, Wis. San Francisco and Marin County officials are expected to consider similar proposals soon.

Elliot M. Katz, a veterinarian and founder of In Defense of Animals, said he has seen people abandon a cat because it clawed furniture or because they were moving, or euthanize a dog with a broken leg rather than pay for its medical care. The name switch should make people think of pets as more than disposable property, he said.

"The word 'owner' is outdated and doesn't reflect the human-animal bond that exists in our culture today," he said.

"This is part of a change of conscience, just as there was a change of conscience in terms of how society should treat minorities, how they should treat the handicapped, how they should treat children and how they should treat women. There's always been a gradual change as society becomes more enlightened and progressive."

But some critics are worried that this gradual change could ultimately lead to fundamental changes for veterinarians, farmers, ranchers and society as a whole.

Some veterinarians and the American Kennel Club are concerned that the proposal would afford animals rights that are now only associated with humans. They wonder, for instance, if veterinarians would be obligated to ignore the wishes of an owner/guardian if they thought it was in the best interest of the pet.

"We obviously support anything that would deal with improving the status of animals," said Dick Schumacher, executive director of the Sacramento-based California Veterinary Medical Assn.

However, he said, he and others remain concerned that its ramifications have not been investigated.

Duane Flemming, a veterinarian and a lawyer in Pleasant Hill, Calif., and president of the American Veterinary Medical Law Assn., said that although the group hasn't taken a position, he fears it sets a "dangerous precedent."

He contends that animal-rights groups ultimately hope to use the change to gain legal standing as guardians for animals in court, where they could argue that certain activities are not in the best interest of the "ward." He cited performing in rodeos and circuses, being milked at dairy farms and killed at slaughterhouses.

"This is a slippery slope. It is a very dangerous situation," Flemming said. "The real, true, underlying sub-goal is to ultimately change people's perceptions, all the time heading toward the concept of getting [legal] standing. Once you can do that, the animal-rights people can change the fabric of our nation."

When the city's Animal Services Commission approved the name change in its documents and workings, the agency and the city attorney's office found that the move would have no impact.

The change will mean that residents who apply for pet licenses will be referred to as guardians rather than owners. Other changes will include referring to guardians, not owners, at meetings and animal shelters. If the city adopts the change, it would apply to city ordinances as well.

At its July 22 hearing, commission President Jolly said the panel will seek information about the economic and legal ramifications of a citywide switch. If the commission recommends that the City Council adopt the term guardian, the proposal will go to the council's Public Safety Committee and eventually the 15-member council.

Some Los Angeles leaders are skeptical, questioning whether the change is a "feel-good" move that would do nothing to lessen concrete animal problems such as overpopulation, an influx of coyotes into residential areas and rabies.

Council President Alex Padilla's spokesman said, "A much higher priority for the councilman, especially in his northeast Valley district, is the number of stray and often rabid dogs that roam the alleys and vacant lots."

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