Going to the dogs

Posted: Jan 21, 2003 12:00 AM
File it under the category of Sounds Good -- well, at first anyway. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted last week to designate pet owners as pet "owners or guardians." Elliot Katz -- president of In Defense of Animals, an animal rights organization in Mill Valley, Calif., and supporter of the measure -- says that the term "guardian" reminds the public that pets are not possessions that can be neglected, or discarded when inconvenient. "Rather than thinking of themselves as an owner of disposable property," Katz noted, pet guardians should be "less likely to chain up the animal all alone in the backyard" and more likely to treat the family dog as "a member of their household." Hosanna. To the extent that the ordinance, introduced by Board President Matt Gonzalez and approved in an 8-to-3 vote, makes bad pet owners behave better, it's swell. It's so swell you could almost forget how the S.F. supes embody the triumph of political symbolism over true governance. The ordinance changes the term "pet owners" to "pet owners or guardians," then stipulates that guardians "shall have the same rights and responsibilities of an owner, and both terms shall be used interchangeably." (At least San Francisco wasn't the first city to stipulate that humans with canine-Americans and feline-Americans are guardians. Berkeley and Boulder, Colo., beat the S.F. supes to it.) Mayor Willie Brown spokesman P.J. Johnston said Da Mayor won't sign the bill because it's silly. While Supervisors Tom Ammiano, Gavin Newsom and Aaron Peskin had the horse sense to vote against it, the bill will become law because the eight "yes" votes can override the mayor's veto. The city attorney has argued that the new wording won't change the meaning of the law. Yet in Los Angeles, which had also switched from pet owner to pet guardian, the L.A. Board of Animal Services voted last week to dump the term "animal guardian" for fear of frivolous lawsuits. Katz assures me that the new language won't prompt lawsuits from neighbors who think it's pet neglect when "guardians" leave the dog out all night. Steve Michael, a Washington attorney who represents the National Association for Biomedical Research, an organization for laboratories that conduct animal research, has a less benign interpretation. He sees these ordinances as "part of a grand strategy to get as many small victories they can in the area of animal law. And with each success, they will view that as progress toward their ultimate goal, which is viewing animals, most if not all animals, as equivalent to human beings." Katz argues that animals should have the same legal rights as children. He doesn't mean dogs should be able to drive or vote (kids either), he explained, but they should have "rights that protect them from abuse." The problem is, if animals' rights mirror children's rights, euthanizing a dog is abuse. When you look at it through the eyes of an animal, as Katz tells me he likes to do, raising animals for food is abuse. First owners become "guardians," then pets become near-human. Next, the line between pets and livestock blurs. I asked Katz point-blank if he thinks it should be illegal to kill animals, as in livestock. "I think under certain circumstances there should be times when that it is OK, and times when it's not OK," Katz replied. "Just like in times of war, it's OK to kill people." And: "My role is to try to convince people that they should move to a plant-based diet." The agenda is clear. Today, pet guardians. Tomorrow, say goodbye to cheeseburgers.