We must stop talking down to animals

Peter Jackson
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I have been giving some thought to releasing our dog into the wild.

Not our setter, mind you; she is very old and feeble, and would likely not survive. But the retriever is still fairly young, quite large, and could adapt to a life free from human domination.

This whole idea of “owning” a dog is fraught with troublesome implications. How can I own another of God’s creatures? I can’t own another being like I own my wristwatch. It’s like slavery. It is slavery.

Fortunately, some fearless journalists have found a way around this ethical minefield. The National Post’s Adrian Humphreys reported Tuesday on a brand new periodical dedicated to animal ethics.

In the debut issue, the editors of The Journal of Animal Ethics tell us the problem is semantics.

“We will not be able to think clearly unless we discipline ourselves to use more impartial nouns and adjectives in our exploration of animals and our moral relations with them,” the editors write.

Problem is, I’ve been referring to our dogs (and cats) as “pets.” This is derogatory. After all, animals have feelings, too. No, the furry beings that co-reside with us are actually “companion animals.” And they’re not just “animals,” either, because that implies we’re superior in some way. They are, more accurately, “non-human animals.”

The Post article expands on this with more from the journal’s editorial:

“Despite its prevalence, ‘pets’ is surely a derogatory term with respect to both the animals concerned and their human caregivers. Again, the word ‘owners,’ though technically correct in law, harks back to a previous age when animals were regarded as just that: property, machines or things to use without moral constraint.”

I try to downplay the ownership thing as much as possible. I like to think the decision to co-habitate was mutual.

Still, when our golden starts slurping other people’s drinks or rubbing wet fur against their legs, the ownership issue always seems to surface.

“Hey, control your dog! Please do something about your dog!”

Fact is, if I released my dog into the wild, he’d be as helpless as I am. If he could talk, he’d probably say, “You go and be free in the wild. I’ll look after the sofa while you’re gone. And leave some food out before you go.”

Of course, “the wild” is a relative thing. Our intrepid journal friends don’t like that word, either.

Here’s how the Post paraphrases their argument: “Using ‘wild animals’ or ‘wildlife’ implies an ‘uncivilized, unrestrained, barbarous existence,’ that causes prejudice …”

Thanks for that. Next time a bear chases me up a tree, I’ll be sure to avoid using inflammatory language.

The editors tell us not to use terms like “laboratory animals” or “farm animals,” as it amounts to implying a class system. It’s like turning up one’s nose at welfare recipients. In other words, it’s all about attitude.

“To understand why we treat animals in the way we do, we need to explore the negative ideas we have about animals…,” co-editor Andrew Linzey told the Post, “and our negative ideas are expressed in pejorative language: brutes, beasts, bestial, dumb brutes.”

Indeed, we have been denigrating animals for far too long.

The editors have therefore banned words like “vermin,” “beasts” and “critters” (except, one assumes, when referring to rival academics).

Then there are those awful stereotypes: “sly as a fox,” “drunk as a skunk,” “eat like a pig,” “slippery as an eel,” “breeding like rabbits” and “stubborn as a mule.”

I’ve personally met some mules who are quite amicable and co-operative, and many pigs are capable of the most refined table manners. And who’s ever seen a drunken skunk?

Meanwhile, I have been shamelessly disrespectful of my treasured canine companion. He always seems happy when I call him a “big goof.” Now I realize how I have left him with emotional scars that are unlikely to heal.

I hope Ches Crosbie doesn’t catch wind of all this. That would be one mammoth class-action suit. (No offence to our woolly ice-age friends.)


Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s

commentary editor. He can be contacted by email at pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: National Post, The Journal

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Recent comments

    May 12, 2011 - 19:56

    Great laugh Peter !! Hard to believe, these people have nothing better to do then examine and comment on, such important issues!! Greenpeace personified!!

  • nightmare
    May 12, 2011 - 16:20

    I love my dog I have a 6yr old Chineese Shar-pie. He is my pride and joy..my best buddie. I talk to him as if he is human and to think for one min of letting him go into the wild ya have to be crazy. Yes he has 4 legs and barks ...But believe me his human..he crys and he sooks AND begs for treats ..his my little cuttie!! I wouldent trade him for a million dollars. And i bet he would trade me either ..he would just stay on the front door step waiting to come back in...And if it was raining he wouldent go out lol he hates the rain lol hahah lovely story!!

  • Denise Perrin
    May 12, 2011 - 12:56

    I get your point, however these things vary between species; even species within species. Releasing an animal that is already dependent, and, whether you think so or not, IS imprinted, is just as irresponsible as capturing one from the wild and trying to turning into a circus performer. This released dog will not survive.

    • RB
      May 13, 2011 - 06:59

      Good grief Denise, he's not really going to release his dog (um, companion animal) into the wild. I believe he's using the example as a metaphor to demonstrate the absurdity of the article in the Post. Interesting editorial Peter. While I respect animals and their rights, it is incredible that there are those who spend so much intellectual energy to determine what terminology would be least offensive to species that have limited understanding of verbal language in the first place. We are living in a democratic country where so many children live in poverty. There are more than 60 children in protective care in St. John's who do not have foster homes to go to, and are living in hotel rooms with social workers around the clock. Priorities, folks. Take care of our children first. Then maybe they can grow up to be the type of adults who have the capacity to care about what happens to animals.