Sense and Nonsense: On Pet Guardians in San Francisco

Voiced by Amazon Polly

Someone sent me a column from The Washington Post (Reuters, August 15) about legislation for pet owners in San Francisco, knowing how much the confusion of human beings and animals annoys me. According to the article, a group called, no less, In Defense of Animals objects to the idea that pets are property. It believes pets should not be bought and sold but “adopted” from shelters. Pets are more like friends or family members, according to the group. God save me from the family that thinks its pets are on the same level as its guests.

“Love me, love my dog” is not the most immoral principle I have encountered, but it’s close. Every morning on my walk, I observe pet owners walking their dogs. City law requires owners to clean up any mess pets make on other people’s property. Thus, dog owners are equipped with various refuse removal devices. Suffice it to say that pets require humans to perform the most humiliating of acts. Modern civilization, as I see it, is a conscious effort to reverse the priorities of the Book of Genesis. Man no longer has “dominion” over the rest of creation. It has dominion over him.

Thus, this movement seeks to change the language with which we deal with pets. San Francisco is the first city seeking to establish in legal language that pets are not property. Human beings are rather their “guardians,” not “owners.” The innovators want to use “pet guardians” each time the law brings up the subject.

Modern society has moved away from calling women and slaves property. If suddenly the reason that we do not want to call animals “property” is the same reason that we do not call women and slaves “property,” we are open to the accusation that we equate animals, women, and slaves. Surely this is not the point, but the new legislation presents no reason why not. Here we note a subtle eliding of the orders of being. Suddenly, little verbal distinction exists between human beings and animals. Does this imply that no ontological distinction can be found either?


It is also not too surprising that many abortionists oppose the use of animal fur for women’s clothing. They do not like to see dolphins or even baby pigs killed, but they have little problem with abortion.

Richard Schluke, chair of San Francisco’s Animal Control and Welfare Commission, says: “I am sympathetic to the idea [of changing the legal wording from property to guardian]. I’ve always felt my pets were my family, not some chattel or property.” One hardly knows whether to laugh or cry. No doubt, animals have a special place in creation. C.S. Lewis, in his essay “Love of Animals” in the Four Loves, noted how lonely the world would be without animals.

Yet the San Francisco experiment is just another initiative in the ever- increasing confusion between gods, men, women, and animals. In San Francisco, the word “guardian” will no longer mean only watching over a human being. We cannot doubt that animals are good and worthy beings. But they are not human beings. We cannot adopt them. Plato referred to military guardians as “watchdogs” of the state. In San Francisco, it is the human beings who are the guardians of the dogs. It could not have happened in a nicer place.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).