“He’s beautiful.” And by “he,” they mean him, Shilo, the horse I rescued from the killers four years ago. I paid the horse trader $50 more than the slaughterhouse would have paid him to keep him from putting that little grey Arabian onto the livestock truck bound for Texas. I liken it to the way Oskar Schindler bought freedom for 1100 Jews.

Shilo is a healthy, sound, purebred Arabian. And one of the sweetest animals you could ever know, especially in light of the abuse he’s suffered in human hands. Not only was he on his way to slaughter for human consumption abroad when I found him, but he had been used and seriously injured in the U.S.-based Mexican horse-tripping rodeos, known as the “Charreadas.”

I don’t know how to respond to “He’s beautiful.” “Thank you”? For what? I didn’t make him. I didn’t create him. I can’t take credit for his grace, his spirit, his fire.The moment leaves me feeling awkward. Speechless.

There’s a fine line among us. We recognize that animals have interests in their own lives, that they feel, think, reason, sleep, eat, drink, play, mate, dream, and die. But to whom do they belong? In your mind–as in mine–they belong to no one. Just as you belong to no one. Just as I to no one. But, under the law, animals “belong” to those who have bred, raised, possessed or purchased them. They are, legally speaking, our property. And we, legally speaking, are their owners.

Except in rare cases, injuring or killing a dog or a cat, say, is a violation, not of the rights of the victims, but of the animals’ “owners.” In other words, the wrong committed wasn’t to the animal involved, but to the property of the human being who owned that animal. Damages are paid by the violator to the owner, and the value is determined as to the monetary “cost”of the injured or killed animal.

So I find myself, in those moments when visitors are admiring Shilo, unable to respond accordingly. I feel foolish thinking what they would think if they knew I didn’t consider Shilo mine, even though I’ve paid to rescue him, pay to feed and house him, to train and groom him, to transport and medically care for him, even though I have the receipt in my hand from the kill buyer, proving that Shilo, under the law, belongs to me.

It is difficult in those moments because I recognize that the law of the land, and the commonwealth itself, are speaking a completely different language than I am. At the risk of appearing the fool, on occasion, I’ve found myself appealing to the sensitivities of others.

“He’s beautiful.”

“Thank you,” I say.

I was sharing an e-mail with a new contact on the internet in regard to the slaughter of American horses for human consumption in France. And in our dialogue, I found myself using words that grated in my conscience–such as “owner.” I was catering, again, to the ingrained conditioning of others so as to not appear the crazed animal rights activist.

On second thought, however, our community has risen quite well above the semantics of language. Animal shelters don’t encourage the general public to come in and “buy” or “purchase” a dog or cat. No. They encourage them to come in and “adopt” an animal. It isn’t until the cash is exchanged and the documents are drawn, that the word “owner” appears in the dialogue.

As long as we regard other creatures as property to be bought and sold, to be owned or mastered, we–as humans–will forever distance ourselves from the essence of our species: our ability to hold sacred the natural world, to view the other lives around us as gifts given to us by a great spirit, and, in so doing, regain our empathy.

If we cannot–for animals–relinquish our rights to ownership, they will continue to suffer immeasurably–as did America’s blacks suffer in the grip of human bondage–because their suffering will never be weighed for what it is, but for what it costs their legal “owners” in terms of the damages done to said owners’ property.

I’m guilty of it myself. Instead of remembering that long-term goal–animal liberation–I struggle in the difficulties of the moment and sometimes give in to my anxieties. But until we liberate our language, we will never liberate animals. It begins with us. It begins by removing the words “owner” and “property”–and any variation of those words thereof–from our vocabulary, no matter the social consequences.

Until we take that step, the court systems cannot follow. “The law may tell us we can own animals,” says Jeffrey M. Masson, author of the ground-breaking book, When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives ofAnimals, “but the law also told us in the past that men owned their wives,and parents owned their children. We know this was wrong.”

Masson is also co-chair of the newly founded international campaign, “They Are Not Our Property; We Are Not Their Owners,” spearheaded by In Defense of Animals. “We can be animals’ friends,” Masson adds, “their companions, their helpers, stewards and caretakers.” Even their saviors.

But we are not their owners… They are not our property.
Does it sound familiar? It should. Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, wrote, “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were notmade for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.”

But, then, you already know that. Just as I know it. It’s time, however, to brave new territory–in this case, by liberating our language. The In Defense of Animals’ pledge–which it is asking you to sign onto–is simple:
“Whereas, I believe that all animals deserve to be treated and respected as individuals with feelings, needs, and interests of their own, and whereas I believe that animals are not commodities or property to be bought or sold, disposed of, exploited or killed, I hereby pledge always:to live my life with an ethic of respect and consideration for all animals, rather than one of ownership in which animals are considered mere property.

to adopt and rescue rather than buy or sell animals.

to represent myself as a caretaker, guardian, companion, protector and friend of animals rather than their owner or master.

to strive at all times to make the world a more just and compassionate place for all beings, human and non-human alike.

“They are not brethren,” Henry Beston writes about animals in The Outermost House, “they are not underlings. They are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”

Shilo is a fellow prisoner. But he paws the ground and dances in place, arching his neck, as if he knows he’s being admired. And then the inevitable response:
“He’s beautiful.”
I have found a new answer.
“Yes,” I say, “he is.”