The Poppy Foundation

Tina Clark

Studies have indicated that surveys show completely different outcomes depending on the way the questions in the survey are worded. One person will answer the very same question in two completely different ways depending on the wording of the question. Therefore, one survey could have two or more completely contradictory outcomes based simply on the way the questions were worded.

Choosing one word over another, even if those words ostensibly mean the same thing, can make a huge difference in the way we look at things, and can even completely change one’s world view. In our relationship with non-human animals, the words we use can have a major impact on the way we view animals and therefore on the animals themselves. Words we use without even thinking about them can color the way we perceive non-humans.

An example is the word "owner" versus the word "guardian." We must stop thinking of ourselves as owners of our animals, and begin thinking of ourselves as their guardians. We must start thinking of them as companions, not as property. A study done by FIREPAW shows that people who refer to themselves as their animals’ guardians rather than as their owners were more likely to treat their animals well. In Defense of Animals has a program called the Guardian Campaign, the goal of which is to have the word "owner" replaced with "guardian" in official language, and it has succeeded in doing so in areas ranging from law codes to shelter and vet forms to signs in public areas–even the entire State of Rhode Island now uses the word "guardian" officially.

Of course, it wasn't too long ago that humans "owned" other humans. We have done away with that, and I eagerly await the day we will regard the owning of any creature as abhorrent. We can start by choosing to use the term "guardian."

Something I hear quite often, even among many animal advocates–people one would think would know better–is the habit of referring to non-human animals as "it," with its concomitant "that" or "which" instead of "who" or "whom." This seems to come so naturally to some people, but whenever I hear it, it is so obviously discordant, it affects me the same way as hearing someone use terribly bad grammar. Many people give the excuse that they don't know the gender of the animal, and therefore can't say "he" or "she." But it is better to be wrong about an animal's gender than it is to treat that animals like an inanimate object. If you didn’t know the gender of a human, would you call that human it? I doubt it. Referring to non-human animals as "it" helps people to think of them as objects, not the living beings they are, and therefore gives permission to exploit them, to treat them any way we please without regard for their feelings.

There is another type of word usage, or mis-usage that has a slightly different background. The use of the word "shelter" to denote a place where animals are taken in and killed, and the use of the word "euthanasia" to describe that killing must also be done away with, but the impulse here is slightly different. These words have come about as euphemisms, a way to make the pounds seem like places that are protecting animals, and the killing that occurs in them seem like a favor to the animals. The use of such words intentionally hides what these places actually are and what actually happens in them. And this, too, has a disastrous effect on the animals. When the public thinks of pounds as "shelters," they are lulled into thinking that animals are cared for and protected there. 

They are more likely to abandon their animals at these places, and are more likely to buy puppies or kittens from breeders or pet shops rather than adopt to save a life. They are also less likely to be outraged at the killing that goes on and to want to do what it takes to stop it. Often those who are working to help animals will continue to use these terms, especially when dealing with members of the pound system, even though they know how inaccurate and misleading the words are, simply because they don’t want to be seen as too radical, or to alienate the people affiliated with the system. I admit I have on occasion fallen into this trap in the past. But I will no longer do so. Therefore, I hereby vow I will no longer use inaccurate terms when talking about animals. I will no longer use the word "shelter" when talking about a place that executes animals, and I will no longer refer to that execution as "euthanasia," even when talking to "animal services" people. I will call a pound a pound, and I will call killing killing. I encourage others to do the same. This is important. We must stop using euphemisms that hide the truth and begin using accurate words for things, so that the truth will be brought to light, and the killing stopped.

A word that is perhaps even worse than euthanasia is destroy, as in "the animal was destroyed." No. The animal was killed. You kill living beings. You destroy inanimate objects. While "euthanasia" simply gives the impression that the killer is performing an act of mercy, saying that one "destroys" an animal actually makes the animal sound as if he were some inanimate object.

The way we talk about animals in the wild also affects the way we think of them and consequently the way we treat them. When they are no longer seen as feeling individuals, but rather "natural resources," well, aren't resources just things we use for our own benefit? When we kill them and refer to it as "harvesting," we turn them into something like wheat or oranges. Then, when some animals who haven’t been targeted for killing are accidentally killed in the massacre, they become "trash animals" (the non-human equivalent of "collateral damage").

Then there's meat--oh, the euphemisms we use to distance ourselves from the fact we are eating someone's dead body. It has been sanitized so entirely that we don't have to think about it–to even connect the meal with the individual we are consuming. We don't eat pigs and cows and calves; we eat pork and beef and veal. If you eat pork, well, pork is not an animal, it’s food, and you don't have to even think about a pig. If we called it what it really was, I think more people would hesitate before they dug into that piece of meat, and many would finally make the connection and perhaps give up meat altogether. This is why those of us who are advocates for animals must start calling dead flesh what it is. And it's funny, but when you call meat what it is in front of someone who's about to eat it, they can become quite irate. Believe me, I know from whence I speak.

Unfortunately, our everyday language is filled not only with thoughtless references to non-human animals, but also with downright derogatory ones. To merely call someone an animal is considered an insult, as are, more specifically, the terms "pig," "rat," and so many others. We talk about "killing two birds with one stone" as if that were a good thing to do. These references are deeply ingrained in our culture, and we who care about animals must be vigilant, not only removing them from our own language, but also bringing it politely to the attention of others who use these terms and phrases.

The words we choose to talk about anything or anyone color the way we view that thing or being. In the case of non-human animals, this can give us an unspoken permission to treat them in harmful ways. After all, wouldn't it be easier for you to "harvest" a "resource" than to murder a fellow being? And doesn’t it seem perfectly permissible–even the right thing to do–to "euthanize" someone rather than kill him?

We must not merely make the change in our language, we must make the change in our hearts as well. Until it becomes second nature for us to say he or she rather than it, who or whom rather than that or which, etc., we are not truly respecting animals. As long as we have to catch ourselves, we are not there yet. Our old outmoded, speciesist view of animals dictates the words we have long used with regard to them, and these words perpetuate that mindset. But it also works in reverse: we begin realizing that animals deserve our respect and real protection, and we begin using words that reflect that, and those words help change the way all of us view non-human animals.


Tina Clark said...

Thanks, Ed, for spreading the word!

thatswhenireachformyrevolver said...

This is wonderful. Thank you so much for posting it.