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In Boulder, Pet Ownership is a Thing of the Past

When San Francisco's Animal Control and Welfare Commission proposed the addition of the word "guardian" to city ordinances last year, public outcry ensued. Journalists across the country mocked the idea, comparing it to nearby Berkeley's official ordinances that de-sexed "manholes" into the gender-free "sewer openings." Many reporters opened their discussions of the proposal with the line "Only in California."

Drafted in part to recognize people who adopt rather than purchase pets, the proposal was abandoned when it was not taken up by the city's board of supervisors. "No matter what we do here in San Francisco, in California, state law says that animals are property," says San Francisco Animal Care and Control Director Carl Friedman, adding that city attorneys were concerned that "guardians" might have fewer legal responsibilities towards their pets than "owners." None of the proposal's local advocates were prepared to launch a lobbying campaign to get the state law reworded, so the Golden Gate city's attempt to redefine the human-companion animal bond fizzled.

A Bold Move in Boulder

But the journalists who declared that such a thing could happen "only in California" will now have to revise their articles, because in an 8-1 vote last July, the Boulder, Colorado, City Council passed a proposal from the Humane Society of Boulder Valley (HSBV) to change the city's municipal code so that it will now refer to people as the guardians of their companion animals.

Boulder has much in common with the largely left-leaning community of San Francisco; the city has a reputation for being somewhat "out there," says Jan McHugh, executive director of HSBV. But even though Boulder is a progressive place, says McHugh, the move was still controversial. "We got criticism both from people who just thought it was a waste of time, and people who were afraid that next thing we'd want to [do would be to] give animals the right to vote, all that crazy stuff," says McHugh.

McHugh's not worried about poodles swinging a presidential election—the change doesn't alter the legal status of animals as property. And because Boulder city attorneys constructed the language so that "owner" and "guardian" could be used interchangeably, the rewording does not affect people's legal rights and responsibilities with regard to their pets. But McHugh hopes that the coverage the switch has generated, both locally and nationally, will help elevate the status of animals. "Our intent was to use the word in a way that would educate people," says McHugh. "I see it as a tool—just like enforcement is a tool and laws are a tool." The controversy itself has gotten people talking to each other, she says.

Changing the Paradigm

Although HSBV was considering the change already, McHugh says the shelter got an inspirational push when a volunteer came forward with materials from the advocacy group In Defense of Animals (IDA). As a driving force behind the campaign in San Francisco, IDA echoed many of the concerns McHugh and her colleagues had been hoping to raise in Boulder.

Elliot Katz, veterinarian and president of IDA, hopes that changes like the one in Boulder will represent the beginning of a gradual shift away from the animal abuse and exploitation embedded in much of our culture. "The effort is to change the paradigm, to change the mindset of people and of society," says Katz. "And that [gradually affects] the courts, because as more people go on record saying, 'I do not consider my animal my property,' more children grow up thinking that way, the next generation grows up and becomes attorneys and judges and so forth. So right now, this seems very foreign to our legal system, but it will become less and less so."

Katz hopes as the cultural consciousness shifts, the law will be less likely to look upon animals as things, to be treated and disposed of according to the will of their owners. If an animal is an individual with needs and feelings, the courts will be more inclined to treat issues of custody the same way they treat them in cases of child abuse: A "guardian" who beats his children cannot have custody based on his "ownership" of a child. The court will instead look at what's in the best interest of the child, and Katz hopes that animal cases will come to be treated similarly. "So many times you have these people who terribly neglect their animals," Katz points out, outlining a situation that many who've attempted to prosecute cruelty cases know all too well. "They're collectors, or they're breeders, or they're puppy mills with half-starved or dead animals, and yet [those people] go to court and eventually get the animals back because of 'property rights.'"

An Owner by Any Other Name

Whether Boulder's leap forward will be followed by cities in other parts of the country or whether it will be a random anomaly remains to be seen. Mary Metzner, president of the National Animal Control Association, thinks the move to a less possessive-sounding word for "pet owner" is just another sign of the times. Recalling her childhood watching the "dogcatcher" snatch Petey away from the kids on "The Little Rascals," Metzner likens the latest shift in terminology to the coining of the phrase "animal care and control."

© Meri Boyles
Are these the legs of an owner or a guardian? That depends on where they tread. In Boulder, this man would be a "guardian," but in San Francisco, he'd be an "owner." If he's a resident of St. Louis County, he's "the person responsible."

"The whole evolving,"says Metzner, "We're moving along, slowly but surely, [toward] the kinder, gentler way."

While some people have reservations about whether the term "guardian" will provide enough protection for animals when the majority of laws still refer only to "pet owners" and "ownership," Metzner believes "guardian" will one day be interchangeable with "owner." "Probably we're going to see that if it's tried in any of the courts, [other] ordinances are going to have to be amended to add [guardian] as well," she says.

In Ladue, Missouri, where Metzner serves as shelter supervisor for St. Louis County Animal Control, neither term is mentioned in the county ordinance. Since 1959, when the county's animal-related ordinances were written, anyone with a pet has been referred to as "the person responsible." And even though Missouri state laws use the word "owner," the difference in terms doesn't present any legal problems, says Metzner.

More recently, another term has been added to the mix: "caretaker," a word used for those who feed feral cat colonies. If a cat in one of those colonies were to bite or scratch a human or another animal, ACOs in some communities would consider the "caretaker" the "person responsible" for that animal, Metzner says. "Caretaker, guardian, person responsible, owner—they all kind of end up funneling back to the same thing," she says.

The change to "guardian" has been indefinitely postponed in San Francisco, and Friedman believes the wording wouldn't have much of an effect on levels of animal exploitation, saying that a vicious person will beat his dog whether he considers himself an owner or a guardian.

Yet Friedman acknowledges that the day-to-day work involved in animal control and sheltering requires a very different kind of thinking and acting than that required by advocacy work; ACOs and shelter workers look the dirty reality of animal homelessness and abuse in the face every day. When dealing with the umpteenth litter of puppies surrendered in a day or treating a dog who's had cigarettes put out on his back, the facts of the situation may make the question of whether the culprit was an "owner"or a "guardian" seem absurd. But, says Friedman, "If the eventual goal of not having animals as property is so you can't experiment on them, eat them, or wear them, fine. However, I'm not quite sure this society is ready to accept that yet."

Even though the move in Boulder was controversial, McHugh says that now that the language is part of the law, most people have stopped mocking. And the calls and letters the shelter receives are largely supportive. "We get letters from people all the time now saying they're happy to be their animal's guardian, and saying they like the word," McHugh says.


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