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Owner versus Guardian


By:  Jeffrey Smith, DVM

A campaign to legally change the term pet “owner” to pet “guardian” in municipal codes and possibly statutory guidelines in states was launched in 1999 by In Defense of Animals (IDA), a nationwide animal rights group based in the San Francisco Bay Area. The platform for the campaign, according to the IDA Web site, is “to reflect growing public support for a redefined public standard relating to animals.”  The term “guardian” appears in statutes, but that the word usually appears as “guardian of the person” or “guardian of the minor” or a variation on that theme. According to legislative counsel, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a court of law to interpret current “guardian” laws to apply to animals.  If a statutory change on “owner” vs. “guardian” were to occur, it could very possibly have adverse consequences for the veterinary profession and animals.

While the term “guardian” may reflect current emotional and social trends of the human relationship with animals in our society, the legal ramifications of making such a change in terminology from “owner” to “guardian” have far reaching consequences that may not always be in the best interest of animals or society. Furthermore, there is nothing to suggest that changing the definition from “owner” to “guardian” would lead to better treatment of animals. People who mistreat animals are going to do so regardless of their legal status: a “bad owner” would undoubtedly be a “bad guardian.”  Some unintended consequences of changing the status of ownership of animals to guardianship of animals may include the following:

      .      An owner, by law, bears full legal responsibility for his or her animal. In the legal sense, an animal is considered personal property, owned and protected by the individual. Such ownership protects a pet from being taken away without due cause, but also places responsibility on the owner to care for his or her animal in a safe and humane manner. An owner is legally responsible for his or her animal’s welfare, protection and actions during its lifetime. A guardian, on the other hand, would have limited or temporary possession of the ward (animal). This may result in the following scenarios:

      .                        The guardian not being able to make medical decisions regarding that animal.

      .                        Third party intervention on how the animal is treated/managed, directed at the guardian and veterinarian.

      .                        It may become illegal to buy or sell animals.

      .      Public safety could be jeopardized since guardians do not have the same legal responsibilities regarding managing the actions of aggressive or dangerous animals.

      .      There could be significant impact on the livestock industry.

      .                        Inability to sell/trade animals for breeding or slaughter.

      .                        Raising animals as an agricultural commodity may be jeopardized.

      .                        Third party intervention on how the animal is treated/managed may cause lawsuits or liabilities that could impact the economics of the industry.

      .      Governmental agencies could possibly face significant costs.

      .                        Replacement of all paperwork and posted signs to reflect the change in terminology.

      .                        Establishment of a system to protect these wards (animals) if a guardian were to fail in his or her duties.

      .                        Establishment of a system to oversee guardians.

      .                        Court time and costs associated with a third party lawsuit over the removal of guardianship, where perceived care does not meet the third party’s standards.

      .                        A change in the status would cause difficulty and lawsuits when local government tries to enforce its animal control and public health regulations, since all city, county and state laws are predicated on the fact that animals are property, albeit a special class of property.

California already has some of the strongest animal protection laws in the United States that provide for the welfare and safety of animals in the state. Instead of changing terminology that in some ways may be detrimental to our state’s animals, the smarter course is to support continued enforcement of current animal welfare laws.

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