We care for animals, but we don’t ‘own’ them

Foeleana Sansevero

Animal enthusiasts and advocates are changing the language that surrounds pets. As shown by many well-known anthropologists, language has a direct impact on the actions of society. In Defense of Animals (IDA), an organization that focuses on animal rights issues, has recently launched the “Guardian” program. This entails changing the name of people who care for animals from “owner” to “guardian”. Although many see this as a useless step toward helping animals, I view it as a step in the right direction.

It is easy to observe the impact of language in cultures that we are not familiar with; however, noticing the power of our own language can be more difficult. The unconscious use of language in our everyday lives contributes to the subtlety of its impact. If animals are considered objects to be owned, that implies that their rights are limited. Consider the days of slavery, when humans were considered property. Their status as objects or tools gave their “owners” reasons to justify their abuse and neglect.

The same arguments that Steven Wise, an animal legal rights lawyer, makes in his book, Rattling the Cage, can be applied to not only chimpanzees, but other animals as well. Chimpanzees are genetically closer to humans; therefore it is easier for humans to relate to their feelings and needs. For example, they are able to pick things up with their hands and hug other chimpanzees, which resemble ways that we express ourselves as well. Most people that share their lives with cats and dogs on a regular basis have experienced their ways of communicating; like tail wagging and barking. Although we are generally aware of the bond we share with animals, we still refer to ourselves as owners. It is deeply ingrained in our minds from childhood. It becomes a subconscious way of expressing our power over animals.

Even those within the veterinary field, still refer to people who have pets as owners. Guardianships would imply that the people would have a higher degree of responsibility. It would seem that animal abuse is a thing of the past, but it still exists. Perhaps, the continuation of the word “owner” is to be contributed to the denial of animal abuse in our society. Simply walk into a mall and you can find perfect examples of cruelty. Dogs are bred at puppy mills until they die or are killed because they are no longer making their “owners” money. If the people running puppy mills had been brought up in a society where people were guardians of animals, rather than owners, perhaps puppy mills wouldn’t exist today. The enforcement of animal guardianship would ensure that future generations, as whole, would have respect for animals and provide them with the care that they need.

Although it may not be in our power as individuals to change those humans that lack respect for animals, we can make an effort to change the future. Being an owner provides justification for abuse and neglect; there are many things that are abused and neglected; the difference is that they are non-living objects that do not feel pain. Think about what you are calling yourself the next time you claim that you are a pet “owner”. You “own” a car, but like people, animals are not property.