Unleashing More Responsibility

Villagers walk past houses buried in mudslides in Albay province, eastern Philippines on Friday Dec. 1, 2006.
AP/Philippine Coast Guard

Did you know that nearly one out of three American households includes a dog, and more than one out of four has a cat?

No one would argue that there is an emotional attachment between person and pet. But what is the legal relationship?

They're fighting like, well, humans over that one, as CBS News Correspondent Richard Schlesinger reports.

There is a war of words in Boulder, Colo., between pet owners and pet guardians and, at least according to the Humane Society, there is a difference.

"Being someone's guardian denotes a much higher level of responsibility than being the owner of a thing," says Jan McHugh, director of the Humane Society.

The Boulder City Council, as guardian of the public interest, agreed and recently became the first in the nation to change all references to pet owners in the city law books to pet guardians. That's when the war of words began.

"If you're going to mistreat your animal, you're going to mistreat it," says City Councilman Tom Eldridge, "whether you're owner, guardian, keeper. Doesn't mean anything."

The new law doesn't change the penalty for mistreating animals. But its backers say this measure is not about punishment; it's about perception.

What happened in Boulder began in San Francisco, where a group of animal rights activists decided the word owner was, in a word, offensive and that changing it was not meaningless or silly but one part of making an important statement.

"An underlying cause of so much of the mistreatment and abuse and exploitation of animals in society comes about because animals are just seen as and perceived as property," says veterinarian Elliot Katz, of In Defense of Animals, an animal rights activist who pushed for the change in Boulder. For Dr. Katz, this is more than a word game and anything but a joke.

"As a veterinarian, I have had people who have come into my office and say this dog is shedding too much, please kill it," Katz says. "They only saw this animal as their property, disposable objects."

Katz's position has raised a lot of hackles in the dog breeding industry, which worries about human rights.

Sharon Coleman represents a lot of dog breeders and sees the name change from owners to guardians as a threat -- to animals and to people.

"It's better for a pet to be a piece of property because that way its owner has some legal basis for protecting it and asserting the owner's right to that animal," she says.

Owning a pet or caring for one used to be simple until larger issues intruded. It's a big fight over little words that are loaded with meaning to owners and guardians.