Dr. Elliot Katz is the president of In Defense of Animals, an animal protection organization he founded to end exploitation and abuse.
A graduate of Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Katz practiced in Brooklyn, N.Y., prior to relocating to California’s Bay Area. In 1983, an animal rights group contacted him regarding horrific conditions in animal laboratories on the Berkeley campus. Dr. Katz took on the cause, rallied a group called Californians for Responsible Research, and filed a lawsuit. The university was charged with violating the Animal Welfare Act and fined $12,000. Californians for Responsible Research eventually became IDA.
IDA is on the forefront of worldwide animal rights. Their work encompasses a broad scope of issues such as abuse, rescue, animal testing, animals used for food, clothing and “entertainment,” and many other causes. Among these is the Guardian Campaign, which is fronted by the slogan “Owner Never, Guardian Forever.”
In this interview, Dr. Katz discusses the principals of the Guardian Campaign, the importance of referring to ourselves as guardians rather than owners, his overview of the flawed veterinary pharmaceutical system, and why dogs and humans share such a special bond.
What are the foundations of the Guardian Campaign?
The implication that our companion animals are more than pieces of property, commodities, things or objects — the industries that exploit animals, or that hunt, sell, experiment and use them for all sorts of entertainment and abusive situations, see that as a slippery slope. There is concern on the part of the biomedical community — because they experiment on dogs and cats — that this will have an impact on their ability to do that. There’s concern in the circus and zoo industries. There are threats coming from puppy mills, the agricultural industry and so forth. The veterinary profession sees it as a threat because they are the apologists of the veterinary associations. The veterinary schools tend to represent the industries that exploit animals, particularly the pharmaceutical industry, which is a major supporter of the veterinary associations. Veterinarians, like medical doctors, are sometimes seen as pill pushers and so they get a lot of money, support, ads in their magazine, the American Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association [JAVMA], a lot of free trips, so they’re very beholding, particularly the biomedical community and the pharmaceutical companies, which are multi-multimillion dollar organizations.
In addition to being front people, the spokespersons against animals being thought of as other than property, the Veterinary Association itself is concerned because if an animal is injured or hurt by malpractice or sloppiness, there is literally, under the courts, no emotional value and there’s no value of the animal itself unless the value has to do with the person who “owns” that animal, such as a racehorse or a breeder of pedigreed puppies. That’s very valuable economically, and they can probably recover something if the veterinarian permanently injures the dog or cat. There was a case where a vet wrote a prescription for a cat, the person took it to a pharmacy, the pharmacy misread and gave twice as much dosage and it killed the cat. When the person called the pharmacy, the pharmacy put them put in touch with their insurance company. All that they could get in compensation was the adoption fee. The veterinary profession likes that situation — whatever happens, there is no value on that animal beyond what you paid or unless you’re making money off of that animal and then the value is the money.
What is the importance of having a written Guardian Pledge and having it codified in ordinances?
The Guardian Pledge is there to plant seeds in people’s minds about how to act responsibly and respectfully toward the animals they adopt. Too many people don’t. They chain the dog in the backyard for hours at a time, lose their temper, beat them, neglect them. We’re on the frontlines, whether it’s in Mississippi or India, where we’re always rescuing and we see how they’re so neglected, abandoned and abused. I realized ten years ago that so much of what we were doing with our rescue work and our advocacy work were on some levels Band-Aid cures unless we changed the paradigm, starting with how our society sees and treats other species.
As a veterinarian, I come from a time when the schools absolutely cared nothing about the dogs and cats. My clients expected me to put their dogs down because they shed too much or barked too much or jumped up on people too much, or scratched the furniture. It was put the dog or cat down because they’re a nuisance rather than take the responsibility of training and solve the problem, because they were not seen as important. In today’s world, you can be proud to say that you love your dog and cat and that they’re a member of the family. When I first started practicing veterinary medicine, anyone who indicated that they cared deeply about their dog or cat was seen as a strange, kooky person. Now the paradigm has changed, so it’s very acceptable. I’m sure there’s still a segment of society that says, “Why are you making a fuss over that animal? Put him down. Kill it and get another one.” The term “owner” reminds people that the animal is seen as just a piece of property, rather than changing one’s own mindset and the mindset of others, which ultimately will be the mindset of society, the courts and attorneys. It’s happening gradually. More animal rights are being discussed in law schools because society’s feelings about animals are changing. That filters down into the legal system and so forth, and when that happens, it becomes a major threat to the industries that exploit and injure animals.
The terminology is key: guardian, not guardianship, not caretaker. How do these terms differ?
Guardianship is a fine word to use rather than ownership; however, we want to get the terminology into animal-related ordinances to give additional credibility to the term guardian so that the average person who has a dog or cat can say, “If it’s appreciated by my elected representatives, by members of the board of supervisors or city councils, then there is more to it than just silliness.” Because that’s how it was seen: “I bought the dog or the cat, I’m an owner, what’s the big deal what I call it.” It’s the same as when you go to a shelter to adopt an animal. You’re actually not adopting the animal; the term adoption is used because you then feel you’re bringing this dog or cat into your family. You’re adopting that animal; you’re not buying it. But under the law there is no such thing as adoption. Shelters take a sales tax. The law does not recognize adoption, yet society has accepted it and it helps enormously to change the mindset of somebody who is told, “You are adopting that dog or cat.” At the same time, most shelters have forms that revert back to calling the person the owner, which takes away from adoption. Adoption is an artificial term. The adoption process was created to help that animal be accepted and protected and become a member of the family. You don’t adopt an animal and chain him in the back yard. You don’t adopt an animal and then neglect or abuse him or say “Get rid of him.” That’s part of the concept of adoption. It’s a semantic thing that was created to protect the animals, and that’s what I’m trying to do with the term guardian.
When you think of a guardian, you think of a protector. As the legal guardian of a child or elderly person, you are there to protect, respect and treat that person, not just as a caretaker would. There’s more to it. There is nothing built into caretaking that says, “I’m not just going to caretake. I’m going to protect and respect the person.” The term guardian has a much more proactive feeling of “I’m the protector, I’m responsible for that animal,” and that’s why I chose it. The dictionary definition is “to guard and protect.” I moved away from guardianship when we got into wanting to include the term in animal-related ordinances. Guardianship is a legal term, whereas guardian is not. When we first started, or shortly afterward, some sort of governors advisory committee passed a resolution that no state agency could use a term that takes away from feelings of ownership. The term guardian pushes the envelope. The term adopt has pushed it so that people feel comfortable and proud that they adopted, that they saved the animal’s life. “I just bought this animal” becomes a sign of “Look at my new fur coat, look at my new TV set.” There’s a different feeling about it. As a veterinarian, having experienced how people could be so indifferent in the early days — and still now, of course — it became essential for me, in addition to all the work we’re doing to change the laws and advocate for rescue and sanctuaries and so forth, that changing the paradigm was critically important.
Part of what I’m saying to you will be used against me, and against the campaign, by the Veterinary Association. Twice in our efforts to get it into animal-related ordinances, representatives of the Veterinary Association showed up and threatened to sue, and letters came to the city councils that they would sue, if they included the term guardian. They’ve taken it that seriously, but again, they also represent the pharmaceutical and biomedical industries. For me, it’s basically preventative veterinary medicine. When I started practicing there was less preventative veterinary medicine; now there’s a lot. A lot of times veterinarians would treat the problem and not the cause. For me, the cause is how society perceives and how we think about these species. That’s why we have so much exploitation and cruelty. For me, it’s a form of trying to prevent the situation. That’s why I saw myself doing Band-Aid cures — because until the mindset is changed people, will continue to buy puppies from puppy mills or breeders or pet stores.
You started IDA as a result of animal lab conditions on the Berkeley campus. Where does your activism come from?
I’ve always identified and was concerned with the underdog, whether in human society or other species. I was always concerned with the civil rights movement, with farm workers — although I was never active in those things, they tore my heart apart. When I first I came to San Francisco I got involved with music. I was taking drum classes from Latino teachers and African-American teachers and became more familiar with the difficulties that the minority communities were having. There’s a saying that if you want to keep the people down, you take away their culture. The biggest funding of money to the arts in San Francisco comes from the hotel tax fund. They were giving millions and millions of dollars to the opera, ballet, symphony and American Conservatory Theater, all of which were promoting European culture, and they were giving very little to the Mission Cultural Center, the Latino community, the Japanese, Chinese or African-American communities. There was a lot of frustration on their part and a lot of controversy around it. I stepped in and started an organization to help those musicians and dancers. I also helped the Theater Rhinoceros, which was the first gay theater. I did that for five years. I started a monthly paper promoting the arts of the minority communities. Currently, there’s a three-day ethnic dance festival at the Palace of Fine Arts; the organization I started runs that, and I was the one who saved it from going down and not happening. Bill Graham and Chet Helms were on my Board of Directors and part of what we did was put on music events in the Recreation Center for the Handicapped. We had a 19-week series in Golden Gate Park. We paid musicians to perform and we had buses bring seniors citizens from their retirement homes and from the Tenderloin, which is a real dismal place, to enjoy an afternoon of entertainment and relaxation.
I tended to be very shy when I was young, and I was the underdog in a great many ways, so I identified with other people that were having a hard time adjusting to society or were being treated poorly. When I was growing up, my parents had an African-American maid and I saw how she was treated so disrespectfully. I think that had as much or more impact on me. The community I grew up in thought of and treated African-Americans as second-class citizens; it was really, really sad. When I was 7 or 8 years old, we lived by the beach and stray dogs were running around. I would bring them home and take care of them, treat them and feed them until my parents moved them out of the house, then I would find another one. The dogs showed me the love that I guess I really wasn’t getting.
Why do we love dogs so much?
Dogs are pack animals. They most likely come from wolves, and living in that close proximity to each other and being part of a pack, they have to learn to communicate very well with each other, whether they’re hunting or whatever might be happening. Animals that hunt in packs have great communication because they have to organize their hunting process or the process to defend themselves. It’s not that essential in some other species that are not dealing with their survival through being a pack. What we do with dogs doesn’t work with cats because cats are not pack animals. They don’t need to communicate and please each other as dogs do. We take dogs away from their mothers at six weeks old and we become their parents, as it were. Instead of them showing that love and affection to the members of the pack, we become their pack leader, we become their identity, and they shower that on us.
All of the ways that they communicate with members of their pack — tail movement, looking in the eyes, whimpering, barking — all of that is to show they that they’ve been injured or they’re happy, because they’re a family when they’re in the wild. They become a family unit with us and that’s why we enjoy that love and communication. That’s part of their genetics to survive in the wild. When we take them away from their mothers and we become that pack, whether it’s the licking that they want to do, being close to you, wanting love or wanting to give love, all of that is a genetic thing that allows these pack animals to communicate with each other and show each other affection and so forth. That’s bred into them.
Over the years we’ve bred some of this out from some of them, but basically that’s why dogs became part of human society, going back probably to the beginning of man when they were less dogs and probably closer to being wolves.
Because we’ve done that, we have that additional responsibility because we’ve made them so dependent on us. They love us, and we have that extra double obligation to give back to them. They are children. We raise them as children to be dependent on us. They’re children that never grow up. They are dependent and at the same time they’re very appreciative of that because you are their parent, you are their fellow pack.
How do you explain the term guardian to people who still call themselves owners?
In general society, it’s a new term. If you say, “Instead of ‘it,’ call them ‘he’ or ‘she,’” they’ll say, “What’s the big deal about that?” Once you have in your mind that’s it’s the right way of saying it, or you’re used to it, it’s hard to change, but that’s been the fight of minorities and the women’s movement for years. That’s why I have two favorite quotes that I go by and do my best to live by. The first one is St. Francis of Assisi and he says, “Not to hunt our humble brethren is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission to be of service to them wherever they require it.” That’s why IDA covers so many areas and so many different situations. The other one, for the same reasons, is by Albert Schweitzer, and he says, “The thinking man must oppose all cruel customs, no matter how deeply rooted in tradition or surrounded by a halo.” That’s what IDA and what I’m all about. Pretty much everything you can think of is a tradition, whether it’s what you eat, what you wear, how you speak. It’s simply a custom or tradition: “We’ve done this for years. Why should we stop now?” That’s part of the Don Quixote challenge that I took on as a veterinarian. I was not the typical veterinarian when I was practicing. I was about as atypical as they get because I cared deeply for the dogs, particularly I was always attached to dogs, and I did my best for both dogs and cats. I was there to do everything I could to help save those lives and that was not typical of the veterinary profession in those days.