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

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

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.

(More below the fold…)

Self-Portrait of a Vegan*

Friday, March 6th, 2009

2009-03-06 - South Park Kelly 04

Oh, yays! I received a copy of Joan Dunayer’s Animal Equality: Language and Liberation – along with a grande Kong for lil’ Rennie, and a few boxes of vegan cranberry pills for my silly, womanly urinary tract (tmi?) – in the mail today. That’s me – or rather, my South Park doppelganger – holding a copy of the book and frowning (about to scold someone, somewhere, no doubt) – up above. South Park Kelly circa 2006 sported a kissy face, but no more. (Who’s got time to make love when there’s a war raging out there!?)

Focusing on language and animal liberation, as the subtitle suggests, the book

shows that deceptive, biased words sustain injustice toward nonhuman animals. Speciesism, the failure to accord other animals equal consideration and respect, survives through misunderstanding and ignorance.

Contrasting evolutionary reality with popular notions of human uniqueness and superiority, Animal Equality discredits the term “lower animals.” Compelling evidence of nonhuman thought and emotion debunks language that characterizes other animals as unreasoning or insensitive.

Vivid exposés of hunting, sport-fishing, zoos, aquariums, vivisection, and “animal agriculture” reveal the cruelty that misleading words legitimize and conceal. Animal Equality leaves no doubt: speciesist abuse relies on euphemism, doublespeak, and other linguistic ploys.

Dunayer even offers a super-handy glossary at the back of the book, complete with problematic words and possible alternatives! (Instead of “spare ribs,” say “pig ribs” – and so on.)

What this means for you, dear readers, is that you can expect an increasingly insufferable vegan language monitor in the coming days.

(OK, well, maybe not ’till next month. I’ve got to set up the garden and lay down the mulch before the weeds run amok. Priorities!)

* I call this one The Veg*n Language Police, naturally.

(More below the fold…)