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In my May 11 article, "Is the Language We Are Using to Describe Our Pets Sending the Wrong Message?" I pointed out that the Journal of Animal Ethics has called for the ban of a number of common words that we use to describe animals and their relationships to them. They do not like the use of words like "wild animal" and even common words like "pet", "dog owner" and certainly not any reference to this latter individual as being the dog's "master". Prof. Emeritus Priscilla Cohn, who is the editor of The Journal of Animal Ethics, and Associate Director of Oxford's Centre for Animal Ethics had the courtesy to read and respond to my article.

In the interests of a fair and open discussion I reprint below an unedited copy of her response. See if she convinces you that the words that we use to describe animals and their relationship to them are wrong and send the wrong message. I will discuss whether her argument makes sense to me in my next article.


Reply to Stanley Coren

It may be amusing to say that Andrew Linzey and I claim that animals should be viewed as if they were "four-footed human beings in fur coats," but if this is what you truly think you are mistaken.  Perhaps you were merely trying to create a straw man argument. If you were at all familiar with Linzey's writings, you would know that exactly the opposite is true. Linzey holds that because animals are in some important aspects unlike humans, they ought not to be harmed. It is precisely because animals lack the ability to give or withhold consent or to represent their own interests that humans have a special duty to care for them.

We do indeed think that many of the words used to describe animals are derogatory, biased, stereotypical or give only a partial picture. Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, eleventh edition, defines  "pest" as "something resembling a pest in destructiveness; esp.; a plant or animal detrimental to humans or human concerns (as agriculture or livestock production)" or  "one that pesters or annoys." People commonly refer to animals such raccoons that get into garbage, deer that nibble on flowers or birds that eat the seeds planted by farmers as pests. Any animal that interferes in any way with any human undertaking can be called a pest including a neighbor's dog. It is a completely arbitrary classification. This derogatory word is used as if it were an innate quality of the animal, rather than a word describing the animal's behavior in relation to certain human practices. The implication is that if an animal is a pest, it can be destroyed without any further thought, yet not all humans view raccoons, deer, birds or dogs as pests. Similarly, the word "vermin" carries the same connotation if not worse since vermin are usually said to carry disease. Surely these are not complimentary or even neutral terms.

Yes, although legally true we object to the word "owner" because the only thing that can be owned is property. For the most part, property, even intellectual property, refers to what is inanimate. We can do almost anything we like with property.  Sentient beings such as animals are unlike any other kind of property. If animals are viewed as human property, it means that in a conflict the owner almost always has the upper hand.  If we think of animals as our property, we tend to forget that they are individuals with feelings, needs and desires. How many people consider the feelings of a cow separated from her newborn calf or shipped to slaughter when her milk production decreases?

We also object to the expression "wild animal" because it carries the connotation of ferocity.  The common understanding of a wild animal is a bloodthirsty animal that wants to eat us. If, however, "wild animals" simply refer to animals that are not domesticated, then mice are wild animals as are rabbits and birds. Most people would laugh at the characterization of a mouse or of a "bunny rabbit" as a wild animal because this term seems fittingly to describe only predators like lions, tigers and wolves. We now know, for example, that wolves are not the frenzied killers that are sometimes portrayed in the movies.  We have learned that wolves establish the pact hierarchy with very little violence. In sum, "wild animal" does not fit the animals previously understood by this expression. Incidentally Roget's Original Thesaurus corroborates our view: it includes the words "brute," "beast" and "wild beast" under the category of "violent creatures."

You write as if the words we use have little or no bearing on the subject being discussed. If, for example, one is talking about women in general and refers to them as bimbos, I think it is clear that such a person has at the very least a distorted or biased view. Such a view of women would certainly color that person's behavior toward women.

Examples revealing the power of words are numerous. Think of the slogan "Black is beautiful." Reflect on the various names hurled at African-Americans and the angry and hurt response such names engender. Consider the "fighting bulls" in Spain. These are the bulls that are stabbed and killed in the bullring. For many people, this expression justifies bull fighting: if bulls are "fighting bulls," then what is wrong with fighting them since this is their very nature, this is what they are. If you have ever seen a bull fight, you would see that that the bulls rarely come into the ring "fighting" and that they do so only after being repeatedly stabbed. If you could see--as I have--the "fighting bulls" in a field before a bullfight, you would see a bunch of placid male cows. Once again, the terms do not fit. They are only used by those who want to continue a cruel practice that  some people enjoy.

I believe that your use of the word "master' in dog training is insensitive. Of course there is an inequality between a dog and the person who is trying to train him, but if the trainer is the "master," then what word characterizes the dog but "slave." In fact, I am sure you know better than I that dogs--and other creatures--are often mistreated and abused by their "masters" who are trying to train them precisely because they think of themselves as masters and use training methods that are cruel. In some situations the animal is viewed not as a sensitive creature, but as a robot-like object that must obey our human whims. Such "masters" may consider themselves superior in every way to the dog they are training. War dogs, of course, show us that in some cases like sniffing out bombs, the dogs are our masters.

In sum, Andrew Linzey and I reconfirm our position: we need to re-conceptualize our ideas about animals and we need new or different words to do so.

Priscilla Cohn, Ph.D.


Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark, The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

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