"Pet," "companion animal," or… "nonhuman companion"?

March 25th, 2009 7:09 pm by Kelly Garbato

2009-03-06 - South Park Kelly 04

I started reading Joan Dunayer’s Animal Equality: Language and Liberation last night, and – true to form – I skipped ahead and leafed through the last chapter first. Such a cheater, I am!

As I mentioned previously, the book concludes with suggestions for improvement, including a list of problematic terms and possible alternatives, the use of which can help combat the speciesism embedded deep within our language. No doubt, readers will be familiar with many of the speciesist terms identified by Dunayer: “euthanize” vs. “murder” or “kill,” “bacon” vs. “pig flesh,” “animal research” vs. “vivisection,” “it” vs. “he” or “she,” etc. The list of problem words also includes a number of terms which initially surprised me: “brutal,” “bestiality,” “humane,” “neutered,” “spayed” – the list is long. While flipping through the thesaurus, it became clear to me that I’ve quite a bit to learn.

Still, I did a double-take when Dunayer singled out the term “companion animal” as speciesist a mere eight pages into Animal Liberation. For years, I’ve been using “companion animal” as an alternative to the more noxious (or so I thought) “pet.” “Pet” implies that Ralphie, Peedee, O-Ren, Kaylee, Jayne and Ozzy are simply here for my amusement – they’re my silly little play toys. (Similar to the ways in which “pet” has been used by men in reference to women: “my pet.”) But “companion animal” – that elevates the relationship, no? They’re not just “pets,” they’re family members, friends, equals. My dogs are my companions, and I, theirs.

Well, not so much, Dunayer argues. Word order and the exclusive use of the term “animal” are the well-intentioned term’s downfall.

Labels borne of exploitation indicate that nonhuman people exist for our use. Furbearer tags a nonhuman person a potential pelt. Circus animal suggests some natural category containing hoop-jumping tigers and dancing bears, nonhumans of a “circus” type. The verbal trick makes deprivation and coercion disappear. Companion animal reduces a dog, cat, or other nonhuman to the role of companion. Minus that role, the term implies, such an animal has no place; if they aren’t some human’s companion, or their companionship fails to please, they can be abandoned or killed. [8] (page 8)

[8] Companion animal is doubly speciesist. First, it turns “companion” into a trait, something inseparable from a nonhuman’s being; the term obliges certain nonhumans to be (and remain) some human’s companion. Second, it restricts animal to nonhumans. Nonhuman companion, nonhuman friend, and pet avoid these problems. Meaning “an animal kept for amusement or companionship” (American Heritage Dictionary), pet indicates a nonhuman’s situation without labeling them of a certain type. Whereas nonhuman companion and nonhuman friend declare a nonhuman animal an active, equal partner in a loving relationship with a human, pet suggests a less egalitarian, possibly exploitative relationship. Pet, in fact, bears longstanding associations of breeding, buying, selling, and discarding nonhuman animals. Unfortunately, pet’s negative connotations are in keeping with the plight of many dogs, cats, and other nonhumans who never receive the respect implied by nonhuman companion or nonhuman friend. For these reasons, I use nonhuman companion and nonhuman friend with reference to nonhumans treated with full respect; I use pet with reference to nonhumans who are sold, discarded, or otherwise disrespected (as in pet store); and I always avoid companion animal. (page 204)

One barrier activists face when trying to restructure their language to better reflect their ideals is convenience: oftentimes the more acceptable alternatives are awkward, unwieldy, tiresome – a mouthful. However, “companion animal” only requires a slight deviation – a change in word order, and a switch from “animal” to “nonhuman.” It’s rather simple, actually. Say it with me: nonhuman companion. Use it enough, and it’ll roll off the tongue!

But wait – there’s more.

Elsewhere, Dunayer writes,

In the same way that a sexist man might say “my woman” (non-relational noun) instead of “my spouse” (relational), people say “my dog” instead of “my dog companion” or “my dog friend,” as if they owned a dog’s very being. […] Formerly, owners of enslaved blacks spoke of “our Negroes.” Today vivisectors, food-industry enslavers, and others who exploit and kill nonhumans speak of “our animals.” Pressed to substitute a relational noun and acknowledge their stance toward nonhuman animals, what could they say? “Our victims.” (page 7)

Anyone who’s been reading me for more than a week or two has no doubt read about “my dogs,” so – guilty as charged. In the past, I’ve wondered whether referring to non-human animals as “mine” is speciesist, inasmuch as it reduces sentient beings to property: “my dog,” “my house,” “my tv.” Like many activists, I gladly accepted the (superficial, I now realize) explanation that “my dogs” is no more speciesist than “my mom” is sexist, because in either case “my” does not denote ownership, but relationship. Not true. The difference, of course, is in the noun – “mom” is relational, whereas “dog” is not. A more valid comparison would be that of “my dog” to “my woman,” as Dunayer points out, or of “my dog companion” to “my mom.” There simply doesn’t exist a noun which defines someone as both a dog and a friend, so two words are necessary to fully explain the relationship.

In addition to “my dog,” I also use the terms “my furkids” or “my furbabies.” Each of these are slang; “furkid” carries some negative connotations (“Bizarre animal lovers think of their pets as furkids.”), while “furbaby” doesn’t even appear on dictionary.com. These terms come a bit closer to relational nouns, methinks, though they are somewhat vague: neither term specifies a nonhuman animal species (cat, dog, etc.), just that the being is a non-human animal, who is one half of a guardian/companion or guardian/friend relationship.

Still, “furkid” (and “furbaby,” more so) can sound condescending. Non-human animals aren’t all babies, kids or youngsters: many grow into adults (and even more would, free of human interference). Characterizing them as babies and children minimizes their agency, no?

Yet, non-human companions are “adopted,” in a sense. Though they are clearly not children, they depend on us to care for them – to provide food, shelter, health care, social and physical stimulation, etc. – much like children. Because they cannot communicate with us – on our terms, anyhow – we’re usually called upon to make decisions on their behalf. It’s not the ideal setup, not by a long shot, but it does resemble that of an adopted parent and her (biologically unrelated) charge.

And I will always be my mother’s child, no matter how much I age. If you consider the guardian/companion relationship to be similar to that of a parent/child – inasmuch as you raise, love and care and provide for your nonhuman companions, and not just in child- or young adult-hood, but throughout their lives – then is the term “furkid” that far off?

“Furbaby,” I’ll grant you, is probably not the wisest choice, as it serves to infantilize sentient beings. Peedee, for example, is eons smarter and more self-sufficient than a newborn baby.




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One Response to “"Pet," "companion animal," or… "nonhuman companion"?”

  1. easyVegan.info » Blog Archive » On “owner” vs. “guardian”: IDA’s Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey Says:

    […] yesterday’s post, the Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey IDA highlighted in their latest newsletter is especially timely. […]

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