Monday, November 19, 2007

New Language

What do the new words guardian and companion animal mean in our relationship to the animals in our lives?

Language is powerful because it influences the way we think. People who adopted animals were owners and their companion animals, pets. New wording is coming into play, and it's already in use by our very own Multnomah Library system.

In most jurisdictions (although this is slowly changing), owner pertains to property. When people divide their household goods (e.g., divorce), animals are treated as property. (So the judge decides that one party gets their sofa and the other their Golden Retriever.) Hard to believe, but true.

The word guardian shifts our perception about our relationship to animals who are our companions. We are caretakers; it is not only our legal reponsibility but also our moral responsibility to provide for their physical and emotional needs. The animals who share the greater web of life with us are sentinent beings. Just like us, they are capable of feeling pain and suffering. So, just as we are guardians of our children (not owners), we are guardians of animals.

The other new term is companion animal for the word, pet. While pet is an easy, three letter word, again it has to do with our relationship. When people took animals into homes, they domesticated them to suit their lifestyles, their preferences, and their needs. But the reasoning behind The Guardian Campaign is that the word pet confers ownership, which may or may not include respect for the animal's inherent nature. Of course, cat people (and some dog people) recognize we can only go so far in molding the expected behaviors of these furry creatures we live with. And of course, dogs, just like children, need to be socialized, or trained, living in a society with others.

Our Multnomah Library system should be commended for incorporating this new language. Hopefully, others in places of authority will do so as well, as we shift our thinking from being owners of pets, to trusted guardians of our companion animals.

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