A reader wanted more information about the line I drew between animal welfare and animal rights. It’s a somewhat arbitrary distinction that turns on my concern about unintended consequences of often well-intended legislation.

Consider Parma, Ohio, a small town south of Cleveland. The town has something of a reputation as being anti-animal because it has been illegal to own a pit bull in Parma since the 1980s. A few weeks ago, though, local officials voted unanimously to substitute animal "guardian" for animal "owner" in the language of all animal-related ordinances. The idea, according to student Brandon Yanak, who proposed the change, was that calling people animal guardians rather than owners was a better reflection of the true nature of the human-animal bond and would engender more respect for the animals.

That sounds great, even if a little touchy-feely, and I have no argument with the sentiment. I’m sure the change seemed like a good idea at the time, harmless window dressing that would garner some good PR for Parma.

There are some problems, though. As a practical matter, there is no evidence that having legal guardians for minor children has cut the incidence of child abuse and there is no reason to think that animal "guardians" will suddenly become more loving or responsible. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I have not compared child abuse rates here with those in countries where children actually are treated as property. But I’ve spent a lot of time in courtrooms, and I suspect that people with a propensity for abusing animals and children probably will continue to do so regardless of the statutory language.)

What Is Ownership?

More fundamental is the problem created by the current legal status of horses and other animals in this country; they’re the personal property of their owners.

I teach a class in Equine Law for the University of Louisville’s Equine Industry Program. The first day of class, I post photographs of a refrigerator and a young child on opposite walls of the classroom and ask students to stand by the photograph that better represents their feelings toward their horses.  Nearly everyone moves to the side of the room with the child’s photograph. That’s the intuitive reaction and it’s not a surprise.

But after a few questions—Can you buy and sell children? Can you raise them for profit? Can you euthanize them if the condition is grave and medical care is too expensive? Can you force them to compete or exploit them in other ways? Can you neuter them to make them more tractable?—all things horse owners take for granted, students begin to gravitate uncomfortably toward the refrigerator side of the room.

Horses obviously are not refrigerators. They’re a special kind of property thanks to animal protection laws that require owners to provide at least minimal care and laws that punish abusers, but these laws create legal obligations for the owners without granting any legal rights to the animals. This distinction between obligations and rights is what makes the current owner/property model and the proposed guardian/ward model incompatible. And that’s the basic difference between imposing legal obligations on animal owners and granting legal rights to our animals.

And if animals have legal rights, are they even "our" animals anymore?

The current scheme—spotty enforcement of often inadequate animal protection laws—is far from perfect, but there is a trade-off for granting legal rights to animals. The horse industry cannot function as it does today if animals become the legal wards of their guardians rather than the property of their owners. If that’s the intent of the new statutory language, fine. But don’t pass it off as a well-meaning but harmless attempt to change peoples’ sensibilities. It isn’t unreasonable to expect demands for a legal interpretation of "guardian" rather than a philosophical one in the future.

For me, animal welfare means working within the system without changing the fundamental legal status of animals as property. Animal rights, at least if pursued in a meaningful fashion, might result in more protection for animals, but it’s a slippery slope.

Where do you stand on animal rights? How much of what you do with horses are you willing to give up?