Guardianship movement heads into Midwest


ST. LOUIS-St. Louis is the latest municipality to add guardianship language to its city code.

ST. LOUIS—St. Louis is the latest municipality to add guardianship language to its city code.

The term "guardian," deemed a dangerous legal classification by much of the profession, was added to city bill 66384, passed by the St. Louis Board of Aldermen and signed by Mayor Francis Slay last month. It's now interchangeable with the term "owner."

Terminology spreads

The move, considered by St. Louis resident and animal rights activist Randy Grim as a means to elevate the status of animals in the community, is not entirely rhetorical, experts warn.

The term, which usually describes custodians of children, could restrict the rights of pet owners to order or opt out of medical treatments, choose euthanasia or even keep animals, experts add.

While veterinary medical associations in states such as California have been fighting the city-by-city battle to keep guardianship language at bay, Missouri Veterinary Medical Association (MVMA) officials admit the St. Louis measure passed without their knowledge.

They now fear it's too late to change.

"This really just wasn't on our radar," MVMA Executive Director Richard Antweiler says. "We haven't made any decisions about what to do on the VMA level. I don't know that there's much that can be done anyway."

Been there

Dr. Gary Block sympathizes. While Block was president of the Rhode Island Veterinary Medical Association in 2001, activists pushed an initiative through the Legislature, which made guardianship language state law.

"We were a small state with a small state budget, and we didn't have the faintest idea this bill was going through so we could fight it," Block says. "The lesson we learned was that money is well spent to pay for the service of a lobbyist to monitor legislation before it passes. To pay for it, we got everyone to pony up money along with annual dues."

While Rhode Island owners and veterinarians have yet to feel any ramifications from the terminology change, contention is inevitable, Block adds.

"The big question is how the courts are going to interpret guardianship in veterinary medicine," he says. "Case law will have to sort that out."

'Unconfirmed fear'

Grim doesn't predict the language will go that far.

"Legally, I haven't heard of anyone pushing this further, and I do think there's a lot of unconfirmed fear," he says. "I didn't realize this as such an issue until after the law changed. I was really surprised. I just thought I was doing the right thing for animals."

"Guardian" is not intended to solicit lawsuits against owners or veterinarians, Grim adds.

"The last thing I want the word guardian to do is scare people," he says. "I see it as a mindset, changing the way people think about animals. It's time we recognized pets are part of the family."

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