Ingrid Newkirk, the founder and president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) urges people to think about the language they use when discussing domestic cats and dogs. It’s important to do this. I always make the effort to be careful with the use of language when I write articles because it firstly reflects the attitude of people towards companion animals and secondly in using the wrong words you can reinforce bad attitudes. If I use the word ‘owner’ or ‘pet’ I do so deliberately to make a point.
At a fundamental level, the way to improve animal welfare is to change the attitude of people in respect of their relationship with both wild and domestic animals. Although there are many millions of excellent domestic cat guardians, taken as a whole, it is very difficult to come to a conclusion other than that our relationship with domestic cats is at best a bit of a failure. And people’s attitude is made clear with the use of the word ‘pet’ to describe a companion animal.
I fully agree with Ingrid Newkirk, and always have done, when she says that the word ‘pet’ can reduce companion animals to commodities. And when you reduce an animal to a commodity it opens the door to abuses. It opens the door to relating to that animal as a non-sentient being without feeling pain or emotions. Interestingly, Newkirk equates the word ‘pet’ to referring to women as ‘sweetie’ or ‘honey’. These are terms of affection usually said by a male partner but she argues that they make women feel less of a person. It is a condescending term and describing domestic cats as pets is also condescending to the animals.
In my opinion, the use of language is circular. It reflects our attitudes and opinions. Subsequently it reinforces those opinions. Language hardens existing attitudes. It is possible to reverse the process by unpicking deep-rooted, poor attitudes through the use of alternative language and specific words. Universally, referring to pets as companion animals over a long time would change attitudes and improve animal welfare.
The process is similar to the use of law. Laws reflect the attitude of society. They are a product of society. However, laws can also change society’s attitudes. Therefore, the enactment of a law may not at the time of enactment reflect the views of society but the intention of the law is to change those views so that in the future the laws do reflect society’s attitudes.
A lot of people who are ambivalent about their relationship with animals and those with a poor attitude towards animals regard PETA as an organisation which is extreme in its views and objectives. They are not extreme. They simply present the truth and when you confront the truth it can cause friction and a reactionary response. Hence the label ‘extreme’. There is a natural tendency for the human to look down on animals and treat them as objects to be used to improve their lives. Or to entertain.
Changing language to describe our pets as companion animals is one step towards changing this false attitude which is so deep-rooted that it will take a very long time to change. I believe that the human-animal relationship is rooted in outdated concepts promulgated by Christianity. A lot of what we do in the West emanates from our religious past and in this instance Christianity. The Bible was written at the time when attitudes towards animals were quite different to today. It is an attitude of them and us. It’s about humans being superior to animals and even when Christianity promotes animal welfare it is not in terms of equality but about what humans can do as superior beings to help animals.
It would be much better if we regarded animals as our equals. That, in an instant, would dramatically improve animal welfare.
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Ricky Gervais calls Pope Frances ‘stupid’ when he said people are selfish in preferring companion animals over children