Excerpt from North Shore Animal League America Newsletter Issue Number 34
"Pet Law" Question Answered:

Question:
As a Humane Education Consultant, I work with animal shelters and other animal welfare groups on educational strategies to improve existing education programs. One of the first strategies that I recommend to all of my clients is to begin using the term "animal guardian" because it typically brings in media attention and is an inexpensive way to promote public responsibility toward the care of animals.

Recently, one of my clients (a staff member of an animal protection group) confided in me that he feared legal repercussions from using the term "animal guardian". So, my question is, could use of the term "animal guardian" actually threaten to introduce legal issues for animal organizations, local governments, veterinarians, or people with companion animals any more than changing the term "pet" to "animal companion?"

Cities, veterinarians, animal shelters, and animal orgs. have been using the term for years and there has not been a problem. To what realistic extent could legal issues arise and unfold around "animal guardians?" I agree that term "animal guardian," if used in future federal animal-based legislation would have to be clearly defined so as not to be confused with (child) guardian. Is it as simple as that, or would use of the term "caretaker," since it is not a legal term, be the best way to diffuse this issue?
Thanks. Cecilia in GA

Answer:
The term guardian has been used more recently by animal protection organizations, instead of owner, to better reflect our relationship with our companion animals. When owner is used, it implies that animals are property, just like a desk, a computer, or other inanimate object.

When one sues for injuries to or death of an animal caused by the negligence or malicious act of a groomer, veterinarian, or other person or entity, damages have often been limited to the fair market value of the animal on the grounds that animals are property. If animals are viewed in the law as more than property, guardians potentially could successfully sue a person or entity that caused harm or death to an animal for emotional distress and also sue on behalf of the animal. However, the fact that the term owner is changed to guardian or caretaker does not in any way guarantee that courts will change how they view animals.

I have found that some who express opposition to the word guardian are really concerned that monetary awards to guardians for harm or death caused to companion animals will increase. This could have an impact on veterinarians and others who provide care to animals, including animal shelters. More lawsuits may be brought if the amount of money awarded by courts is greater. Insurance premiums may also be increased. Those opposed to the use of the word guardian argue that the cost would be passed on to clients who might not be able to afford veterinary or other care.

Those in support of the term guardian and changing the status of animals in the law argue that accountability would be increased and animals would get better care. I agree with this and also agree that the word guardian better reflects what our relationship should be with companion animals.

More than the use of the word guardian or caretaker will be needed to get courts to change the way they usually value companion animals, but it is a start. Although some courts today do award damages for more than fair market value, many courts still view animals as property and do not consider emotional distress and other claims.

Elinor D. Molbegott writes a regular Pet Law column for North Shore Animal League of America. She maintains a law practice in Long Island, New York devoted exclusively to animal law. Elinor formerly was General Counsel to The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

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