Nonhuman animals (AKA animals) are a hot topic these days but there are still problems with how they are represented in mass media. Ample data, much of summarized in New Scientist, show that animals are smart, emotional, and moral beings and that they care about what happens to them. The language we use to refer to animals informs our thoughts and perceptions of who they are and our thoughts and perceptions influence our actions. We can do much better as being the voices for other animals and it is our ethical responsibility to do so.
Carrie Packwood Freeman at Georgia State University has shown that when animals go to press there are serious concerns about how they are represented. She notes in addition to objectifying animals when we use the inanimate pronoun it, we also do so when we call them livestock, meat, seafood, or game rather than cow, pig, chicken, fish, or elk. She also notes a strong tendency to refer to animals by their utilitarian end such as beef cattle, dairy cows, laboratory rats, or circus elephants
A recent National Public Radio (NPR) report summarizing a study showing that ants seem able to count is an example of how language can demean animals. Ants are able to count the steps they take using what are called "pedometer-like" cells in their brain. Part of the experiment demonstrating this ability entailed cutting off parts of the legs of some ants in what the NPR report called a "makeover." I assume this was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek way of making light of the fact that these animals were actually disfigured.
Would the word "makeover" have been used if the limbs of chimpanzees or dogs were amputated? I doubt it. Such speciesism shows that ants and other "lower" animals who do amazing things aren't thought of in the same light as "higher" animals who in fact cannot do some of the remarkable things that ants and other insects can do.
Nonetheless, endangered chimpanzees are also misrepresented, often depicted as human caricatures, doing silly tricks, wearing clothes, playing musical instruments, driving SUVs or other cars, or reading Science magazine as in a promotional campaign by its publisher, the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Such misrepresentations lead to the perception that chimpanzees are subhuman and not on the brink of extinction and they can undermine conservation efforts. The authors of this report note, "In addition to media-created misperceptions about chimpanzees conservation status, media effects can also distort understanding about basic biology.
Animals are also misrepresented in still photography and in wildlife films, a little know fact; see also - see also. There is little control about letting consumers know they are buying a canned photo or watching a canned wildlife scene. Recently a wildlife photographer was stripped of his "photographer of the year" award because he apparently hired a tame Iberian wolf to stage an image rarely seen in the wild. Animals are also kept on photography game farms in which there are few if any concerns or regulations about the well-being of the animals. They're often kept in tiny, filthy cages and euthanized when they're no longer needed.
What can we do about media misrepresentations? Some simple rules of thumb will go a long way to representing animals more accurately. We can refrain from using words such as "higher" or "lower" to refer to animals because individuals do what they need to do to be card-carrying members of their species. We should get word-processors to stop replacing “who” with “that” when referring to animals. We should stop portraying animals as mock humans. We must pay attention to what we know about the fascinating cognitive, emotional, and moral capacities of animals because misrepresentations underestimate and demean them. We know, for example, that octopus use tools, mice are empathic rodents, and birds are better at making and using tools than chimpanzees. And while it might be cumbersome, we should use phrases such as "nonhuman animal" or "other animals" because use of the word "animal" in contrast to the word "human" supports a false notion that humans aren't animals. We are, and we should be proud of our membership in the animal kingdom.
Given the enormous amount of press animals are receiving in what might be called the "century of the animal" we should expect that these who write about animals represent them as the beings who they are, not as who we want them to be or as objects to be used for our own ends. Nonhuman animals deserve better, and at a time when so many people are asking, "Where have all the animals gone?" we can do better for them and us by following simple rules of thumb. In the various scenarios in which animals are used - laboratories, zoos, and circuses - and in the bigger picture of what we're doing to natural populations of animals - more accurate and less deflationary and "cute" representations will make their lives better.