Throughout history our great thinkers and leaders, such as St. Francis of Assisi, Mahatma Gandhi, Rachel Carlson, Cesar Chavez, and Albert Einstein have expressed a deep concern for the rights and well-being of animals and urged others to view and treat animals as more than just resources for humanity.
So it was more than just a politically correct gesture of the moment when San Francisco's Commission of Animal Control and Welfare recommended amending city code to include "and/or guardian" wherever city law uses the term animal "owner."
The Sept. 9 decision, prompted by a proposal from the animal rights group In Defense of Animals (IDA), makes a distinction - morally and semantically - between someone who buys an animal and someone who adopts an animal.
Although quite a bit of media fervor has focused on the proposal, many people still seem to be confused as to exactly what IDA expects to accomplish. Ultimately we want to elevate the status of animals from that of property to that of individuals with needs and rights of their own.
Legal language is a first step. In the short term we hope to extend existing laws to recognize a respectful relationship between two individuals of differing species, rather than maintaining the present relationship of "owner" and "property."
For example, it was only after slaves, women, and children were legally recognized as individuals and not as property that society afforded them rights. Likewise, oppression is inherent when a being - human or animal - is property.
In San Francisco, the new category of "guardian" will encompass the same legal rights, responsibilities, and liabilities of an "owner." A guardian, however, refers specifically to someone who adopts or rescues an animal instead of purchasing a commodity.
Outlandish? More than 130 international animal protection organizations, humane societies, and thousands of people who have endorsed and supported our effort don't think so.
Another example of politically correct zealotry? Not if you consider that on Saturday the New York Bar Association held the fifth annual conference on animals and the law to discuss "The Legal Status of Non-Human Animals."
The conference, and the increase of animal rights law courses offered at universities - including Harvard, Georgetown, and UCLA - are a result of public acknowledgment of the work of animal advocates, like respected primatologist Jane Goodall, who've elevated and expanded our understanding of animals as individuals.
As a veterinarian, and president of In Defense of Animals, I am all too familiar with the injustices, exploitation, cruelty, and abuse perpetrated on innocent animals because they are perceived of and treated as mere property.
If you're not familiar with the millions of animals killed because they shed too much, bark too much, or can't run fast enough to compete in greyhound races, then you can't fathom the harm that befalls loving beings because they are seen as disposable property, seen only in terms of the benefits they bring to their human "owners." When that benefit is perceived to diminish, those animals are often killed.
The need for a more refined legal relationship with animals stems directly from these injustices.
We must ensure that our legal system reflects the fact that humans, over time, have purposely taken animals from the rules of the game in the wild to the rules of the game in human society. We have a duty to protect these animals.
Under the proposed changes in San Francisco code a "guardian" may legally be indistinguishable from an "owner." However, the semantic and moral difference - an owner buys, a guardian adopts or rescues - will plant the seeds of a new ethic of compassion and respect for animals.
How can a change in language result in better care and treatment of animals? As past liberation movements have repeatedly proven, the way we speak is a precursor to the way we act.
Just as you don't buy a member of your family, animals should not be bought like inanimate objects with no interests or feelings of their own. By not buying an animal, the number of animals purposely bred for profit - and correspondingly, the number of animals dying in shelters - will decline. The concept of "guardian" supports this ethic.
It is time for our legal system to recognize the relationship between people and animals as something more than "owner" and "property."
*Elliot Katz, a veterinarian, is president and founder of In Defense of Animals, a national nonprofit animal rights organization based in Mill Valley, Calif.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society