Foxy, a Himalayan cat who has been visiting us at the farm, has had little use for newspapers since she achieved maturity, and perhaps it is just as well. A news item the other day would surely have upset her.
A California-based animal rights organization wants San Francisco to relegate pet ownership to the Dark Ages. According to a Reuters story in Sunday's Washington Post, In Defense of Animals, whose president, Elliott Katz, is a veterinarian, wants to replace the term "owner" with the more egalitarian term "guardian" in city laws, which in effect does away with the notion that animals can be the property of humans.
Even by California standards, this is dingbattery of a high order.
Katz, the vet, says: "Society first moved away from women and wives as property, then it moved away from African Americans as property. Now a large segment of people are beginning to move away from the concept of animals as property. We are asking the city to recognize that."
I never thought I'd see the day when the emancipation of women and African Americans was cited as precedent for altering the legal status of pets. But there you have it.
Emancipating pets as if they were oppressed fellow humans makes no more sense than would endowing full citizenship on porpoises or granting suffrage to the black bears that roam our Shenandoah Valley woods. Animals are entitled to humane treatment, but asserting that they have all of the privileges of human beings, including, say, the right to sue for damages, is mischievous flummery.
Will emancipated dogs and cats have the duties and obligations of citizens? Will they pay taxes? Be obliged to send their young to school? Be compelled, on pain of fine and imprisonment, to answer up when the census taker comes to call? Will good cat (or dog) citizenship oblige them to pretend interest in George W.'s hell-raising youth or Billyboy's skill at division of attention when telephoning members of Congress? Will they be compelled to voice their opinions on such national fixations as Al Gore's personality and Hillary Rodham Clinton's ambitions?
Will they be frowned upon when they have more children than they can support? (You can bet they will not get welfare.) Or say my dog, Max the mixed breed, gets loose, and so does the neighbor's prized show dog, the splendid poodle Bijou, and they have a romantic rendezvous in the still dark of a suburban evening. Both return home, but Bijou, my neighbor's tresor, is changed forever. She is enceinte. And when she delivers, there's no question about who le papa is. It's Max. Bijou's career as a mother of expensive purebred poodles that will haul in prizes at the Westminster Kennel Club show is over. Fini. We've got the possibility of significant monetary damages here. Say Bijou's owner not only gets mad but also becomes litigious. Whom is she going to sue? Me? Get out of here. Max is 6 years old; he's fully responsible for his actions; I'm only his guardian. Sue Max.
Here's another scenario: We have friends over to dinner, and they bring their 3-year-old. Our hero Max is in the kitchen, eating his food, and the intrepid 3-year-old sits on the floor in front of him. Then she decides to find out whether Max can eat at the same time she is tugging at his ears. Max is usually great with children, but this time his patience is sorely tested. He growls softly, and I tell our friends to get their child away from Max while he is dining. Too late. The child has stuck her hand in the dry dog food Max was eating and tossed the kernels all over the kitchen floor. Max bites her hand and does some damage. Whose household insurance policy is going to cover this mishap? Mine? I'm only the guardian. Let Max get his own insurance. And just see if he can qualify after that business with Bijou.
San Francisco, being San Francisco, looks headed toward diminishing the long suffering of minorities by this ridiculous elevation of pets.
In Defense of Animals last week asked the city's Animal Control and Welfare Commission to take the first step toward ending animal ownership by adding the words "and/or pet guardians" to each city ordinance that mentions "pet owners." The commission, which advises the Board of Supervisors, gave the proposal a positive hearing, according to Reuters. Its chairman, Richard Schulke, said he was "sympathetic to the idea. I've always felt my pets were my family, not my chattel or property."
We've always felt our pets were part of our family, too, and we grieve when we lose them just as we grieve over human members of our family. Pet people are often embarrassed to say they feel this way, but we shouldn't be. Pets are often much less trouble than kinfolk and much more constant in giving comfort and companionship. I've never had a pet try to hit me up for a loan, a sports car, new speakers or a private phone line along with a new computer. Going through the teenage years with most pets is pure bliss compared with living with most human teenagers. A dog might try to sneak out at night, like Max the Casanova, but you aren't likely to find him sneaking cigarettes and beer into the house, and you'll never have to shout at him, "Turn down that awful noise."
Besides, no one ever owned a cat. Cats dwell in a private world where humans are permitted to intrude only for purposes of feeding, grooming and, when required, providing companionship. Foxy belongs to my daughter, who gave her the regal name of Foxglove, and we paid money for her, but I don't believe I've ever heard a member of our family describe our relationship to her as one of ownership. We love her, we take care of her, and she does a lot of cute things that amuse us no end.
Cats and dogs are useful grace notes in our lives, and they give us an opportunity to care, to be kind, to love without being hurt. We are responsible for them. But people they are not.