More than Words: Pet "Owners" or Pet "Guardians"?
An Animal Rights Article from


Dr. Katharine Pfaltz
June 2008

What might at first appear mere semantics — at least this is how I once perceived it — is an important and powerful step we can easily take to change human exploitation of animals, and teach reverence for life. The Guardian Campaign asks that we change our language so that we no longer use or accept the term “owner” as applied to those of us who have animal companions. Instead, we would use the word “guardian.” Working to replace “owner” with “guardian” may seem moot to many, especially when so many other pressing animal welfare issues demand our attention, but consider the following prescient and eloquent words of Beryl Markham when describing her destiny to become a pilot:

A word grows to a thought – a thought to an idea – an idea to an act. The change is slow, and the Present is a sluggish traveler loafing in the path Tomorrow wants to take.

These words written more than fifty years ago are nowhere more pertinent than to the Guardian Campaign. The tomorrow I wish for is one in which animals are given respect and care; a tomorrow in which we end cruelty and exploitation, and all animals are valued for what they are: sentient beings with intelligence and emotion.

I have never felt I owned the animals with whom I lived. I care for my three dogs and they offer me love, companionship, and joy. They are my friends and teachers. If my dogs are sick I take them to the vet. Likewise, if I feel down, my dogs come lie beside me. I love the “Feeding Frenzy” as our ritual is called, filling each bowl as they race around excited. I fill their bowls with healthy food, and in turn they fill me with great joy and purpose. I consider myself their caregiver, their greatest advocate, their guardian. But not their owner.

Most people who share their lives with animals feel enriched by them and cannot imagine a life without them. We love our animals like family. Therefore we must be their voices in a world still struggling with the erroneous concepts of animals as commodities, pets, possessions, and school projects. Animals are none of these. They are sentient beings in their own right, intelligent in some ways far beyond human capabilities.

When we change our thinking and language about animals, we change how they are treated. People thinking and acting as “guardians” of animals, rather than “owners” act more responsibly. As animal guardians people are more likely to spay and neuter; we’ll see fewer animals in shelters. We realize our bond with our animal companions is more than property or commodity.

As our thoughts towards animals and our understanding of them shift, so too must the language we use, the same way language has evolved over the centuries to reflect a changing world. People who consider animals as no more than property or commodity are more likely to neglect and/or abuse them. We now know animals have emotions. We now know animals communicate with each other and with us. And unlike Cartesian thought of the seventeenth century, we now know animals can feel pain and suffer.

In many circles we have already shifted our language and speak of stewardship of the land. When a man merely “owns” the land, it’s his and he is able to do what he wants. He can cut down all the trees and often he does so in an effort to make the most money. But when he is the guardian of his land, the shift in language is evident in his actions towards the land. Man acts in the best interest of the land, which in turn helps him.

Rethinking the way we talk, hence act, takes time and is not always simple. But the implications of changing just this one word are huge. As Markham and others before and since have pointed out, a word becomes an idea; an idea becomes an action; and actions change the course of history.

Thus trying to change the way animals are treated and regarded by changing our language about them is far from silly, moot, or a matter of armchair semantics. As a writer and a professor of literature, I understand there is tremendous power in words. The power to change. Our animal companions need this change. As their guardians let’s see that it happens.

What you can do:

First, become familiar with the campaign. Go to and educate yourself about the Guardian Campaign.

Next, spread the word. Tell your friends and family, and begin by changing your own speech and beliefs. Talk to your local SPCA and see if they are aware of the campaign. If they’re not, educate them. If they are, ask if they are willing to make a statement. Consider spearheading this change in thinking and language in your community. Thank you. Every one of us can make a difference.

Dr. Katharine Pfaltz,
Professor of English Literature,
Mary Baldwin College

Return to Animal Rights Articles