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PR tactics


CVMA uses PR tactics to beat back guardian issue

Sacramento, Calif.-The California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) has hired a public relations agency in its campaign against an animal rights group's drive to reclassify pet owners as guardians within city ordinances.

At presstime, Pasadena city attorney Michele Beal Bagneris was reviewing a proposal by activist group In Defense of Animals to change the municipality's language. In what CVMA officials call a move for public education, the association took out a full-page advertisement in a local newspaper and hired a public relations agency to execute its message. Executive Director Dr. Dick Schumacher says he's doing everything he can to stifle the activist initiative.

Dr. Dick Schumacher

"We're making a lot of noise," he says. "We have to campaign on this otherwise the issue slips by unnoticed. If we don't they'll pick us off city-by-city, and it'll reach the state level before it's all over. We're sending fax alerts to our members, asking them to speak out on why not to bring this issue forward."

Conveying consequences

The association's aggressive tactics follow years of combating In Defense of Animals' initiative. While activists suggest renaming owners as guardians merely enhances the concept that animals should be treated like family, CVMA leaders insist the terms are not interchangeable. In its "Pet Owners say 'Paws off our rights!'" campaign, CVMA reports changing the term could reduce the legal status and value of pets and restrict the rights of owners. Its advertisement reports predicted negative outcomes:

  • Pets could be removed from homes without judicial review.
  • Guardians would only have temporary "possession" of pets.
  • Guardians could lose the right to make medical decisions on behalf of pets.
  • Rights to legally sell or give away pets would be eliminated.
  • Medical care for pets could be delayed or refused because guardians do not have the same legal responsibility for pets.
  • Public safety could be threatened because guardians do not have the same legal responsibilities for the behavior of aggressive or dangerous animals.

A respect issue

Leaders of In Defense of Animals say CVMA is overreacting, attempting to scare would-be voters of the issue. Dr. Elliot Katz, a veterinarian and the group's founder, says he takes a "more progressive and compassionate approach to animals than average practitioners," and views the CVMA's motives as "disingenuous."

"Our campaign can do so much to reduce the number of animals abused and abandoned each year," Katz says. "The veterinary profession is afraid of change. For them to be doing these kinds of ads is basically showing us how much they think it'll hurt their pocketbook. They're afraid society will put more value on dogs and cats."

Katz also maintains CVMA disregards city and state attorneys who have concluded that replacing ordinance terminology with "guardian" carries no legal backlash.

Schumacher refutes his claim: "The unforeseen consequences of changing these legal terms have yet to be determined, and when city attorneys look at this they're as concerned as we are. This isn't a simple feel-good semantic."

Marching forward

While Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Monica officials have accepted CVMA opinion and thrown out attempts to revise city ordinances, other municipalities have disregarded the group's warnings.

In December, Sebastopol, a small semi-urban community in western Sonoma County, Calif., became the latest area to invoke guardianship language. While Berkeley, San Francisco, West Hollywood and Marin County also have instituted change, the movement has moved beyond California. Boulder, Colo.; Amherst, Mass.; Sherwood, Ark.; Menomonee Falls, Wis.; and Woodstock, N.Y., have adopted the terminology.

"You see, the sky isn't falling," Katz says. "If it was, you wouldn't have all these cities adopting the term 'guardian'. This is more about raising the public's consciousness."

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