Cut “It” Out!

Posted by Joyce Tischler, ALDF's Founder and General Counsel on March 21, 2011

Everyone has certain things that bother them and one of the things that really vexes me is when people refer to animals as “it.” Ooh, like nails scratching on a chalk board.

I’ve seen this reference in a variety of places:

“The dodo bird is known for its inability to fly.”

“In addition, a pony was removed from the home, its hooves so overgrown; they looked like human feet until rescuers had to trim them with a hacksaw.” (Emphasis added).

Why do we call an animal “it” when we would never refer to a human being that way? I even hear “it” from friends and colleagues who care about animals and have companion animal family members. “It” makes me cringe. “It” has negative implications.

“Like what,” you ask? To me, using the word “it” allows us to distance ourselves emotionally from other animals. Calling them “it” degrades them, implying that they are less worthy of our concern. "It" reinforces their “thingness,” as if they are no different from inanimate objects. Once an animal is reduced to the level of a thing, some people feel free to cause that animal great pain, with no sense of moral responsibility. It doesn’t matter if a “thing” suffers, or dies. Perhaps, that is why there are so many cases of terrible cruelty to animals.

A toaster is an “it;” a car is an “it,” a house is an “it.” These inanimate objects do not feel pain or pleasure. They are not born, nor do they die. If you beat a rug, no one will raise an eyebrow.

I’m not being anthropomorphic. Science will back me up here. Animals are not things, nor are they inanimate objects. They are sentient beings. Generally speaking, animals come in two sexes: male or female, just as we do. A dog is either a male or a female. The word we use to describe the dog should acknowledge that basic reality. That’s hardly a radical notion.

So, let’s cut “it” out of our vocabulary when we refer to an animal. Animal advocates can help make the point that animals are sentient beings, by replacing the word “it” with the word “she” or “he.” Get it?

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3 thoughts on “Cut “It” Out!

  1. JoAnn McKnight says:

    I have no problem with using “it” when refering to an animal when I don’t know the sex. I even refer to human babies as “it” when I don’t know their sex. I agree animals are not things, nor are they inanimate objects. They are sentient beings but I have even said “poor little thing” when I have seen an animal in a distressing situation. By me calling an animal “it” or “thing” in no way degrades them or implies that they are not worthy of my concern. It does matter to me if an “it” or a “thing” suffers or dies.
    I am just saying that I don’t feel as strongly as Joyce does about the use of “it” or “thing” when refering to any animal.

  2. Susan Ruderman says:

    I’m usually all about semantics, but I’m skeptical that substituting “he or she” for “it” in cases where sex is unknown is going to make any appreciable difference (besides making communication more awkward and potentially alienating allies by “correcting” them.) It’s a limitation of the English language that the “it” lacks gender or person. In Spanish, for instance, the familiar “tu” generally applies to children, pets, etc. while the formal “Usted” is reserved for unequal relationships, etc. I think for many of us, we simply avoid pronouns when possible by using nouns. “What is Kitty’s name?” rather than “What is its name?” Or “Is your dog friendly?” rather than “Is it friendly?” Would like to see some research done on this topic. For example, in a shelter setting where euthanasia is performed, do staff really “depersonalize” the experience by avoiding gender-specific pronouns? “I’m going to PTS it” versus “I’m going to PTS her”? Or “She is unadoptable” versus “It is unadoptable”? Would be a good project for a linguistics grad student to pursue.

  3. Susan Dunne says:

    Thank you Joyce! Your blog exactly reflects my own outlook. In fact, for those who feel ‘it’ is wrong there is a Facebook page dedicated entirely to that issue. I am very sure you will like it: http://www.facebook.com/IsAnAnimalSheHeOrIt

    JoAnn and Susan, on the above Facebook page is also information about the incorporation of gender-neutral terms such as han (he/she), hanen (his/hers) and hanet (him/her) into the English language. You are both invited to explore the page for yourself.

    My thanks to to you once again, Joyce! ♥