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Calif. Pet ‘Owners’ Irked by Label

October 20, 1999

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ In a city where some people are as likely as their four-legged friends to wear dog collars, the line between the species is being blurred even further by pet owners who want to be known henceforth as ``pet guardians.″

Language shapes attitudes, they say, and the word ``owner″ encourages people to treat pets like disposable property. So they are asking that city ordinances be reworded to add ``pet guardian″ as an alternative term.

The city’s Animal Control and Welfare Commission is considering it and will probably vote on it next month.

The fur is flying over the idea.

Supporters liken their cause to abolition and women’s suffrage. Lots of other people just roll their eyes.

``I love my dog dearly,″ said Jenny Huston, who watched her golden retriever, Giacomo, run with other dogs in Duboce Park on a recent balmy afternoon. But she added: ``I am not his guardian. I bought and paid for him.″

In any case, she asked, ``What’s the difference?″

Legally, nothing, according to the city attorney who drafted the changes. Owners and guardians would have the same rights and responsibilities, and pets would still be personal property.

The idea came from Elliot Katz, founder of a 15-year-old organization called In Defense of Animals. The proposal is also under consideration in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, where Katz lives.

Anita Carswell, who says she is a ``guardian″ of 10 cats, wore a ``primate freedom″ tag to an animal control and welfare commission meeting last week and told the commissioners they have a duty as officers of this famously liberal city to send the measure to the Board of Supervisors for approval.

``I think if this can’t happen in San Francisco, where can it happen?″ she said.

After all, this is the city that sponsors Pet Pride Day and is the home of George, a pet store that sells whole-grain dog biscuits for $13 a pound. It is also the city with a $7 million SPCA shelter where stray cats and dogs live in private ``condos″ furnished with wicker furniture, pillows, framed prints and TVs that play nature programs and cartoons. The staff includes six behaviorists.

The debate has led to a hissing match on the editorial pages.

Elizabeth Finkler of Sunnyvale wrote that if animals have rights, they have responsibilities, too. ``Start charging them rent,″ she said.

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