The power of words isn't lost on the York County SPCA -- especially the power words can have over those who can't speak for themselves.

That's why in late 2009, the Emigsville shelter changed a simple term in its adoption contracts.

Instead of being "owners," people adopting dogs, cats and other pets from the shelter are now referred to as "guardians."

The change has no legal ramifications, Executive Director Melissa Smith said, but the hope is that it will make a difference in the hearts and minds of adoptive families.

"Those two terms are so different in meaning," she said. "I think it sets a different tone. You own your

car, but your car is not a living thing. I think the term 'guardian' suggests a higher level of (moral) responsibility."

The York County SPCA embraced the idea, which was introduced about eight years ago by retired veterinarian Dr. Elliot Katz, president and founder of In Defense of Animals, an international animal-rights group.

"We needed to change the language, just as so many other movements have done," Katz said, including the civil-rights and women's-rights movements.

"It's clearly evident that action will oftentimes follow language," Katz said. "My feeling was the term 'owner' denigrated the animal companions we share our lives with."

'Rhetoric': If animals are viewed as property, it's far easier "to think of them as a commodity that could be bought and sold," Katz said. "There's always the same rhetoric that protects the status quo."

Katz said there are hundreds of animal shelters around the country that have adopted the "guardian" term.

In July 2000, Boulder, Colo., was the first city to do so.

Since then, 44 other U.S. cities have followed suit, as has the entire state of Rhode Island, replacing "owner" in codes, ordinances and legislation, according to Katz.

The campaign has been met with mixed reactions from members of the American Veterinary Medical Association, according to the group's website.

Some AVMA members have expressed concern about "the unintended legal implications" of pet owners being identified as guardians, specifically a flurry of malpractice lawsuits filed against veterinarians that could lead to "skyrocketing" malpractice insurance that forces vets to increase their costs to clients, according to the AVMA's website.

Change doubted: Gary L. Francione, professor of law at Rutgers University and author of numerous books on animal rights and the law, isn't opposed to using the term "guardian."

However, he said it isn't going to change anything.

"The bottom line is, is the legal status of animals changing? ... I don't regard them as property, but the law does," he said. "Can I still chain them outside? The answer is, of course I can. So I'm not sure what these campaigns do."

Francione also disputes Katz's philosophy that tweaking language can effect change in how animals are treated.

"It may work when you're talking about civil rights or women's rights, but it doesn't work when you're talking about property," he said. "You don't go from non-personhood to personhood through incremental changes ... (including) language changes. Once somebody has achieved personhood, then you can improve that status and ameliorate the lack of equality through various means.

"I hate to be negative about this, but ... in a lot of ways these changes just make us feel better. They (let us believe) we're progressive, that we're humane," Francione said. "It's not really going to change things."

SPCA hopeful: Smith said she knows some people will never feel a moral responsibility to their animals.

"But I do believe I've seen a slight change in mindset -- that more people are adopting pets to be companions," she said. "And that's why we felt this change in language, while it may seem minimal, will evoke a feeling of guardianship.

"We just feel it's imperative that people view animals in a different light than they have before. And we hope the change expresses our philosophy of how people should view their pets."

-- Reach Elizabeth Evans at levans@yorkdispatch.com, 505-5429 or twitter.com/ydcrimetime.