Building Compassion From the Ground Up

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Building Compassion From the Ground Up

By Bruce Zeman on The Peaceable Table

Bruce Zeman brought a lawsuit against his former apartment landlord on behalf of his family and twenty other tenants of the building to enable them to keep their companion animals. After winning the suit, he went on to campaign in his city, Wanaque, New Jersey, to change the language of city ordinances from "pet owners" to "guardians." In 2004, Wanaque became the first "Guardian City" in New Jersey, and the new law was called "Nathan's Law" after Bruce's dog friend (see above). As active participants in IDA's Guardian Campaign, Bruce and Nathan make presentations to school children to raise consciousness about respect for animals. Bruce also deals with animal issues extensively on the radio show he hosts. This essay is part of a longer one Bruce is publishing in pamphlet form.


Bruce and Nathan

Change is coming, and for the animals, it can’t happen soon enough.

Whether it’s the 8-10 million perfectly adoptable animals euthanized in the United States each year, the 660,000 slaughtered for food every hour, or the appalling cases of cruelty where perpetrators get little more than a slap on the wrist, the time has come to change the way we speak about, and perceive, non-human animals. Animal rights and welfare organizations have existed for years, and yet even today, one of the most daunting challenges remains how to alter perceptions. The question remains, “How can our vision of animals transcend the antiquated view of treating them as “things” or “commodities” rather than sentient beings, with needs and complex emotional and intellectual lives of their own?

Part of the solution rests in countering the archaic and incorrect assumption that animals are non-thinking, non-feeling objects to be used, exploited and objectified. The remainder of the solution, more than likely, lies within each of us - if we are willing to look at ourselves, and change our own behaviors. Humans are but one species on the planet, and our mere presence by no means entitles us to unquestioned superiority. The time has come for change - in actions, thoughts and language. The time has come for a paradigm shift with respect to ending stereotypes and human authority over another species. History is providing us with an unmistakable call to action - to create a moral and ethical imperative embracing our responsibility for, and towards, animals.

Education - The Prescription for Change

Throughout history, education and semantics have played a vital role in every social movement, and the growing push for animal rights is no different. It was not long ago African Americans, women and children were regarded as property. In the case of animals, altering the way humans speak of (and view them) is even more critical. Animals cannot speak for or defend themselves, and must rely on those who believe there is a moral, ethical and legal obligation to protect them from abuse, exploitation and neglect - members of one species protecting the rights and well-being of another.

In Defense of Animals (IDA), an international animal protection organization based in California, whose singular mission is to protect the rights, welfare and habitats of animals worldwide, has worked tirelessly for over 25 years to end animal exploitation, cruelty and abuse. In 1999, IDA launched the “Guardian Campaign,” to elevate the status of animals above mere property, commodities or things, by changing perceptions of animals through subtle, but critical change in language. In the past, animals had legal standing as commodities or property, and often their exploitation, neglect or abuse was ignored, rationalized, and even justified. At the dawn of the 21st century, IDA and its visionary founder, Dr. Elliot Katz, DVM, set out to revolutionize those views.

The “Guardian Campaign” was created to reflect growing public support for a redefined public standard of relating to animals. With animal-companions taking an ever-increasing, and more important, role in families, more and more people began to refer to themselves as “guardians,” instead of “owners,” recognizing the deep personal relationships humans develop with non-human animals. Replacing the term “owner” with “guardian” may seem like an insignificant play on words, something trivial, but history has shown that movements are spearheaded by words, and this very change in semantics can stir people to action, and alter history.

Since 2000, when Boulder, Colorado, became the first “Guardian City,” the campaign has spread across North America with the realization it was time to embrace the powerful idea that we respect and honor animal lives as distinctly their own, as well as acknowledging the profound bond that exists between humans and their animal companions. Currently, almost 6 million Americans and Canadians are officially recognized as “guardians,” and the number is growing. In cities across North America, state and local governments, community groups, and schools, along with child and animal welfare organizations, are adopting “guardian language” since it is a more accurate representation of the connection between people and their animal companions.

Guardians - Why Words Matter

Here are a few of the benefits “guardians” bring to their communities and the animals who live there:

Guardians Recognize Animals as Individuals, Not Objects

Making a conscious effort to use the term “guardian” instead of “owner,” imprints upon a community’s consciousness the importance of animals. By viewing, treating and speaking about animals from the perspective of a “guardian,” a person demonstrates that he or she respects and recognizes animals as individuals with needs and interests of their own.

Guardians Recognize Changing Public Attitudes

Society’s changing attitudes toward animals is reflected in language people use to write and speak about them. Numerous studies indicate the majority of people living with animal companions see them as family members. Using the term, “guardian” exudes respect. Adults, using the term, set an example to help children appreciate dogs, cats and other animals as living creatures who depend on us for care and protection.

Guardians Reduce the Number of Animals in Puppy Mills

Most animals sold in pet stores come from puppy mills. Every animal purchased equals one euthanized at a shelter or humane society. Buying that adorable puppy or kitten seen in the pet shop window, directly affects the tragic over-population problem by taking a potential home away from an animal about to be euthanized in a shelter. Buying an animal also funds puppy mills, and contributes to the perception of animals as marketable commodities. When someone says he or she “owns” animals, it encourages others to see these “owned” animals as having only monetary value. When people call themselves a “guardian,” they communicate the emotional value of animals.

Guardians Help Decrease Abuse and Abandonment

Adults have the opportunity to teach young people that being a “guardian” is a valued personal characteristic. When adults lead by example, children will be less likely to abuse or abandon their animal companions. When adoption agencies, shelters, and rescue organizations work with the community to reinforce the idea of being a “guardian,” people in the community will far more likely feel they are adding a family member, as opposed to purchasing a disposable piece of property.

Guardians Positively Impact Local Communities

It is a community-based effort to legally recognize citizens as “guardians.” A community of “guardians,” working together, can have a positive impact on animal issues facing the municipality, such as shelter overpopulation, barking dogs, dog fighting and animal abuse. Calling residents “guardians” empowers communities to work together toward common solutions. Updating a community’s codes to include the term “guardian” is a symbolic change demonstrating a new attitude of public concern for animal welfare. Though updated legal language does not affect one’s legal rights, responsibilities, or liabilities, the psychological and sociological impact of the language change helps advance positive and encouraging views toward animals and their care.

Changing people’s perceptions about animals won’t happen overnight, but it will happen. The key to facilitating such change lies in humane education and fostering an awareness that animals exist for their own reasons, not simply to benefit humans. Many open-minded and compassionate adults have already embraced the idea of being a “guardian” instead of an “owner,” but the impetus for permanent change lies in educating future generations about animals, and our responsibilities to them. Children must be empowered to make the world a better, more compassionate place. Once these children become adults, they will pass on experiences to their kids, and so on. The cycle of compassion needs to begin now. With the right educational support and parental reinforcement, it can and will perpetuate itself.

Remember - one person can make a difference! Be part of the solution, not the problem.