This is a plea to people who call me, and those like me, an "animal lover." Please don't call me that until you understand what it really means.

When someone calls me an "animal lover," as William Raspberry (op-ed, Oct. 14) called the rescuers of the 17 laboratory monkeys, it usually means one thing: people hater. It means that we care nothing for distressed human beings. Somehow, we must abolish the mind-set about the term, erase it completely from our lexicon, until it is clearly understood that it is part and parcel of life-loving.

Today's "animal lovers" are coincidentally acting in the 18th century Quaker tradition; Quaker abolitionist John Woolman would not ride in a stage coach, so dstressed was he by the sight of the exhausted drivers and horses. Later, his co-religionists helped set up the underground railway and secretly taught slaves to read and write.

The false equation--that animal loving equals people hating--had nothing to do with getting the police to seize the 17 monkeys on grounds of violating the Maryland anti- cruelty law. (Those individuals have a record of helping human beings, as well.)

The equation has nothing to do with picking up a lost dog or kitten off the streets. In the 1950s, it had nothing to do with seeking a federal law providing a more merciful death to pigs, sheep and cattle. In the 1960s, it had nothing to do with passing laws to clean up laboratory animal dealers and labs. Today it has nothing to do with trying to get Congress to overhaul and sufficiently fund the Animal Welfare Act, and to try to get the Agriculture Department inspectors to stop glossing over gross violations. Nor does it have any bearing on trying to get members of the public on animal care committees so that scientists will not be the only policemen. Animal loving/people hating has nothing to do with the push for more funding for research into non-animal substitutes, at a great saving of federal funds.

Certainly, animal loving/people hating has nothing to do with the growing movement to bring more companion animals to the homes for the aged, infirm, mentally disturbed or criminally incarcerated. This is a new role for companion animals (a more meaningful and dignified term than "pets"). Now animals, in addition to giving their bodies for testing, are giving us, in another kind of institutional setting, their souls--in a sense--to get us well another way, their way: people loving. (Fortunately, these animal "people lovers" are not usually classified as "animal haters.")

Proof that a pet is better than a pill is being scientifically documented (not that we didn't know it all along.) University of Pennsylvania scientists studied 92 cardiac patients and came up with the fact that of the 53 with pets, only three died in the following year. Of the 39 without pets, alas, 11 died. Pets are proving to be blood pressure lowerers, too, so potential stroke victims should take heed.

I invite those who denigratingly call me and my type "animal lovers" to join me. Come with me to the Hurt Home for the Blind. There, visit with me the black and white, men and women, all in their 80s and 90s. Stand there and watch as I remove a tattered and worn toy dog from the lap of one blind lady, who sits motionless nearly all day. She has trouble getting about since she broke her hip. Watch as I place a gray kitten adopted from the Animal Rescue League in her lap.

The color returns to her pale face. She strokes, hugs and even kisses the kitten or dog. Sometimes she recites long- remembered verses about animals. She is happy and at peace.

Now, I ask you, is this "animal lover" really the "people hater" that legend would have me, and my kind, be?