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  • Elaine Marie

En Garde!

High school gym class introduced me to the sport of fencing. We laughed alot as we practiced advancing and retreating on gym mats hook-and-looped* together to make the playing strip, foils in hand. I remember learning that when the referee used the french phrase "en garde", it was to signal to the competitors to get ready, and to take their positions for the start of the duel. This article is an "en garde" alert for animal owners to be ready to take their positions to defend their traditional rights with respect to their animals against a subtle, yet real attack.

What attack? It is one of semantics.

As part of the long-term strategy to eliminate the traditional categorization of pets as property under the law, animal rights advocates have called for a rebrand of animal ownership as a guardianship. Referring to someone as an animal's guardian has a nice ring to it, and implies protection over your beloved pet. In the long run, if it is an advancement towards formal recognition of non-human personhood in the legal sense, the name change might not be as innocuous as it sounds. Some potential negative ramifications of making an animal a person under the law include the possibility that your pet could sue you in court, and that you may not freely be able to make medical decisions for your pet like euthanasia.

To give just one example of the direction this initiative is driving towards, first consider what the group In Defense of Animals has to say about it:

Since our fellow animals should never be considered as property, commodities, objects or things, they should not be bought or sold, but instead be adopted, rescued, or re-homed and welcomed as family, or left in their natural state with compassionate and thoughtful assistance.

Pair that sentiment with the push to change state laws so that pet shop owners are only allowed to only sell shelter animals, and we can predict that the path which begins with a new name for animal owners, passes along to increased legal restriction on the buying and selling of animals under the auspices of animal welfare (Ca, MD), goes next through to increasing restrictions by forbidding pet shop sales of animals altogether (Ca) and ultimately leads to the point where we may not purchase or keep animals under any circumstances. The animal rights activists' playbook is to begin with one or just a few species of animals, with a limited ban under certain conditions. From there, the new law is amended to include more species and expanded conditions under which certain animal-related activity is prohibited. This continuous march along the path of more and more restrictions ought to raise red flags. Today the new legal restrictions don't apply to a pet you have, or what you do with your pet; but tomorrow's laws might.

So far, animal rights activists had limited success; convincing some cities, counties and states to refer to "animal guardians" rather than animal owners in laws and codes. The ASPCA approves of the guardian term, while the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) firmly opposes of the name change. The AKC has also taken a stand against the re-phrasing of ownership, and even produced an informational pamphlet outlining their position, while American Horse Council and other national horse associations like AQHA have not formally weighed in on this debate.

While initiative to call animal owners animal guardians continues to percolate along, another language change has begun. On March 25th, a number of animal rights advocates have called for an update to the Associated Press Stylebook, recommending that the words it, or which or that should no longer be used when writing about animals. Instead, the guidance should be to use he or she, who or they when referring to animals. In so doing, the proponents believe it will help animals to be personified instead of objectified. This may seem reasonable, but if it is part of the larger movement to gain legal non-human personhood for animals, caution is in order.

To win at fencing a certain number of points must be scored, and deciding which competitor gets the point is based on priority; which can be gained in many ways. Eliminating "it" for animals, and calling animal owners "animal guardians" are developments that shouldn't be considered to be independent of one another. Recognize the overall strategy being used: change the words, change the thinking, then change the law. We must be prepared to parry attacks on our traditional rights as an animal's owner.

* Don't say VELCRO


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