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Animal Guardianship: Speech for National Homeless Animals Day

We are in the midst of rapidly changing conceptions about animals that endows them with basic rights and intrinsic value, no longer defining them as mere resources or commodities. This is an evolutionary advance of the first order in the history of the human mind and a significant stage in the development of ethics and broadening of the moral community.

But old conceptions still tether our minds and morals to a dark dungeon of primitive thinking; current laws and language relating to animals date back to ancient Rome when animals, women, and children were slaves. In time, the human beings were formally freed, but animals remain prisoners; within the law, they are still defined as property or things, and human beings are positioned as their owner, masters, or Gods without accountability. If an animal has an economic or “scientific” function, there is nothing human beings cannot legally do to it.

The language we use to map the world is extremely important, it shapes and constrains our thinking; if we define the natural world as a machine, we will treat it as an inert assemblage of parts alien to our being. Similarly, if we define animals as property, we tend to regard them as lifeless things, mere commodities, or disposable objects. Beholden to such concepts, people tie animals to chains, they exploit them as food, medical, or entertainment resources; or they euthanize them for the capital crime of scratching their furniture.

But animals are not inert objects or dumb beasts, they are subjects of a life who share basic things in common with us: sentience, emotions, a richly articulated social world, and creative intelligence. As such they warrant rights, they deserve our respect, and we act wrongly when we exploit them in any way.

Within a ferment of change, a quiet revolution is unfolding across the country; animal advocates are changing the language in their city codes, replacing the term “owner” of an animal with “guardian” of an animal. If you apply for a cat or dog license in Los Angeles or in the state of Rhode Island for instance, you now become their guardian, not their owner.

If animals are not our property, we are not their owners. One owns non-living objects, not living subjects. The term “owner” creates a gulf where there should be a bond; it divides a biological community that is one; and it implies power over rather than responsibility for. Guardianship, to the contrary, implies an active, lifelong commitment to the well being of the animals within an expanded moral field.

Guardian responsibilities to animals are not simply to not harm them, but to positively do them good -- to come to their aid and rescue, to liberate them from every form of neglect or abuse, to open every cage. The cats and dogs on death row; the birds, pigs, and cattle in factory farms and slaughterhouses; the whales and dolphins in the ocean; and the bears and the wolves in the forest all depend on us.

The animals are crying out for help that only we can give; they look at us with piercing eyes that cannot be denied; our relationship with them is one of sacred trust and it must never be broken.

We come together in kinship and solidarity with the nonhuman animals who are part of our human community; their similarities with us are far more morally important and relevant than their differences; we are one life family in an evolutionary continuum.

In the U.S., millions of homeless animals are euthanized every year; in our own community, El Paso, Texas, 22,000 animals were put down last year.22,000 precious lives. That's:

22,000 stabs in our hearts

22,000 tears shed

22,000 blows to the understanding

22,000 times we have failed the animals

22,000 reasons why we are here tonight

22,000 vows we must take to stop this needless suffering and killing

I say to the animals who are our friends, companions, loved ones, family members, and co-participants in the adventure of life: We hear your cries, and we in turn cry out -- we ask everyone in our community to help you, to make your plight a top priority instead of a last priority, to understand how our fate is tied to yours, and for each and every citizen to become guardians of this beautiful earth and all of its magnificent life forms.

August 17, 2002


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