Carl Safina Writes About Pronoun Usage When Referring To Animals — More on “Anthropomorphizing”

beyondwords-paperback-e1466014381216One step at a time, we’re getting the word out that social animals share many characteristics with humans. Outdated biases are often thoughtlessly — or purposefully — perpetuated in language, in this case, by using simple pronouns or designators which prevent folks from seeing social animals for who they really are. I sometimes wonder if referring to an animal as an inanimate “it” or reproductive entity such as “cow”, helps excuse and justify society’s treatment of them by keeping them at arms length: they are brutally hunted, brutally experimented upon, and brutally raised in preparation for the slaughterhouse.

In the article: “Wild In The Streets: Pronouns On The Loose”,  Huffington Post, June 17th of this year, Carl Safina, author of the wonderfully warm and biologically supported exposition, “Beyond Words” and author and host of “Saving the Ocean” on PBS, writes about our society’s use of impersonal pronouns when referring to animals, and how this detracts and diminishes them as sentient social beings. I, of course, totally agree with him. I’ve deliberately used “who”, “him”, “her”, “mom”, “dad”, to help folks better understand  and relate to coyotes, specifically in my 2013 informational video presentations, “Coyotes As Neighbors” and “How To Shoo Off A Coyote”. I also wrote an article on the fallacies of the anthropomorphizing concept which simply diminishes animals and prevents us humans from getting to know them, rather than helping us understand them for who they really are: unique individuals with amazingly different personalities from each other.

Here is what Carl says:

When a cow recently broke loose from a New York City slaughterhouse onto the streets of New York, The New York Times ran the headline, “Cow Who Escaped New York Slaughterhouse.” Using “who” for a non-human is heifer heresy, and The Times struggled with inner conflict. While the headline ran with “Who,” the first line of the story reported on the “cow that…” The New York Post reversed the Times inconsistency, running the headline, “Cow That Ran…” while their photo caption referred to, “The cow who escaped…”

For The New York Times it was a bit of a watershed, straddling a furry area in pronoun policy and prompting an explanatory editorial. “Our goal,” wrote editor Philip B. Corbett, “is to reflect familiar usage among our readers. In the case of the cow in Queens, it seems our editors were caught between two impulses.” At The Times they are a-changin’.

But not, apparently, at The New Yorker. There, Inky the octopus’s jailbreak from New Zealand’s National Aquarium in April prompted a profile with a photo and text. The caption under Inky’s headshot read awkwardly, “Inky the octopus, which recently escaped.” But The New Yorker too was at odds with its own caption; the body of the piece included, “Inky hauled his basketball-sized body out of the tank.” “His” body; not “its.”

What’s going on? Lines are blurring as we understand more about who animals are. As I wrote in my recent book Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel, “I allowed myself to ask them the question that is forbidden fruit: Who are you?”
To read on, please press this link:

For a wonderful introduction and review of Carl’s book, Beyond Words, which will be republished in paperback on July 12th, see the following short YouTube video and read this review.

Connecting With Animals: Anthropomorphizing

I’ve been mulling over the concept of “anthropomorphizing”: attributing human feelings and emotions to animals and inanimate objects. And yes, it’s true that the wind and the pumpkins in these photos do not actually have the human attributes we humans have assigned to them — these are indeed anthropomorphisms.

However, I see many emotions and much intelligence and rampant individuality in the coyotes I observe, and many of these characteristics are similar if not the same ones we humans have. I’m not arbitrarily imposing uniquely-human characteristics — anthropomorphizing — on these animals. Rather, I recognize, as do many observers, drives and behaviors which are clearly similar to ours. As animals ourselves, we share some basic characteristics with other animals, including the need to eat, sleep, self-protect, raise our young, care for one another, defend families. I’m saying that behind these activities lie the same feelings, sensations and emotions which make us engage in these things: hunger, sleepiness, care, love, anger. You can’t truly understand these animals until you recognize the similarities, and then magic and real understanding open up. I’ve come to see coyotes as living lives different from ours, but parallel to our own — not dissimilar from the Hobbits over in the Shire.

Anyone who has a dog knows animals are bundles of emotions, yet some animal behaviorists are reluctant to admit this because their disciplines don’t allow it –there’s little way to determine it under controlled laboratory conditions and no way to quantify it, and also, they want humans to stand alone at the apex, as unique in the world, in the “Aristotelian” model which became woven into the doctrine of the church, where Man stood apart — Man alone had been made in the image of God. Anthropocentrism places humans at the center of the world saying we are the only ones with emotions, brains, etc, and that we can’t possibly attribute these to other species because we can’t prove it.

But we can’t even exactly define our own human emotions — this doesn’t mean we don’t have them!  The “love” you have for someone is totally different from the “love” I have for someone, and your “love” for the out-of-doors is not the same as your “love” for your child.

Psychologists, on the other hand, as opposed to animal behaviorists, know animals have similar emotions to humans, and have even used animal studies — often cruel studies — to understand human behaviors, such as the effects of early maternal deprivation on the human psyche.

In the same vein, and on the flip side of the coin, I think it’s telling that humans like measuring animals’ intelligences based on our own unique standards which we presume to be at the top of a pyramid. For instance, learning and manipulating symbols or the use of language as we human animals use it, is often considered the summit of intelligence. Behaviorists have written about the monkey who could learn and manipulate 400 symbols, on a screen or as objects — the bright little bugger! Haven’t humans shown their OWN limitations by their anthropocentrism there? In fact, if we were to use a chimpanzee standard on ourselves, there are instances where we might fall far below on the intelligence scale. For instance, chimps have a far superior short-term memory to that of humans, as shown by their consistent ability to reproduce ten items on a screen from memory whereas humans cannot. And they can be better at strategic reasoning than are humans, as seen in a recent study led by Tetsuro Matsuzawa of the Kyoto University Primate Research Institute. See www.

It is only very recently that humans have begun cracking the Rosetta Stone of animal communication, emotion and their amazing intelligence. By embracing a world order which created a strong divide between humans and other critters in regards to intelligence and feelings, we limited our own ability to learn more about both these other animals and ourselves. When it comes to the idea of human supremacy, we humans have a history of sidelining and persecuting those offering new discoveries that turn established doctrine on its head: Galileo with his telescopes proved Copernicus’ discoveries that it was not the earth (and by extension, Man), which was the center of the universe, but rather the sun around which other planets revolved. The Inquisition put Galileo under house arrest for the rest of his life and forced him to recant. Society was not ready to accept it. Now that we have begun, barely begun, this investigation, we are making astonishing discoveries about animals, and we are surprised and incredulous. For instance, in the realm of emotions and memory, elephants come out way ahead of humans (and so do octopi).

Two coyotes approach and help another coyote who showed signs of irritation and distress on her neck area

Two coyotes approach and help another coyote who showed signs of irritation and distress on her neck area

In writing up my observations I include shared characteristics, feelings, and behaviors that I observe. This helps people better understand and relate to the animals. People tend to care about what they can relate to. As I said above, there is still a divide between scientists — between animal behaviorists who don’t want to assign emotions and intelligence and individuality, and psychologists who do. My thought is that you can begin from the premise that animals and humans do have the same drives and feelings, or you can begin from the premise that they are completely dissimilar. It’s hard to prove either premise quantitatively, but simple observation will show you incredible similarities if you are willing to take the time to really look and understand.

Two coyotes snuggle together, one affectionately licking the others' ear

Two coyotes snuggle together, one affectionately licking the other’s ear