• Who. That. It. How We Speak About and For Animals

    Keggie Carew Considers the Ways Language Informs Our Perceptions of the Natural World

    “The gobshite, the gum-sucker,
    the scare-the-man, the faith-breaker,
    the snuff-the-ground, the baldy skull
    (his chief name is scoundrel)”

    –Seamus Heaney, “The Names of the Hare”

    In 2016 The New York Times ran the headline “Cow Who Escaped New York Slaughterhouse Finds Sanctuary.” That “Who” caught the eye of Peter Singer, and he was pleasantly surprised. The perspicacity of a cow’s dash for freedom from the jaws of death appears to have thrown the reporter and said cow out of the newspaper’s stylebook. Could this at last reflect a change in policy?

    Not according to the paper’s Editor for Standards, Philip Corbett, who held to the Associated Press’s guidelines: that “person” pronouns are only given to animals with a name or where the sex is specified. Otherwise, tough. Cows are its and thats and whiches, and that’s it. So the “who” was a blip then.

    Nevertheless, the story was reported variously across the media as the cow “who,” and the cow “that.” Technically this cow was a steer, a castrated male—which demonstrates the way we talk about animals does not encourage paying attention—and now he’s got a name, Freddy, so it doesn’t count. Freddy went to the Skylands Sanctuary in New Jersey to live out his natural life. Which is so typically contrary of humans.

    This sanctuary seems to do a roaring rescue service for escaped slaughterhouse cows and steers. Brianna, for instance, who fell off a cattle truck on her way to the slaughterhouse, was rescued and gave birth to a female calf who will now “never be without her mother,” said Mike Stura of Skylands. From meat line to the sanctuary in one imaginative leap, Brianna earned herself a lifespan.

    March 2019, same thing: a calf escaped the slaughterhouse, ran loose down the street, became a TV star, earned his “person” pronoun, and was rehomed at Skylands. At writing, Skylands has 70 escapees. If livestock have the wherewithal to not become deadstock, we humans can relate to them, and with our divine whim we name them and grant their reprieve.

    If livestock have the wherewithal to not become deadstock, we humans can relate to them.

    England, 1998. Two five-month-old ginger Tamworth pigs, brother and sister, escaped from a Wiltshire abattoir while being unloaded from the lorry. They were chased through the streets of Malmesbury, but they dived into the River Avon and swam to the other side. They were on the run for a week. Top slot on the news desk, the nation fell in love. A celebrity tried to buy them. Donors offered “silly money” for their safe retirement. sanctuaries across the country competed to give them a home.

    By the time they were captured the boar had been named Sundance, and his sister butch. Their owner, Arnaldo Dijulio, said they were worth 40 quid each and he wasn’t prepared to discuss it. Whatever money passed hands, Butch and Sundance ended up at a rare breeds farm in Kent where for 13 years they were the main attraction.


    What is “it” about? it: “pronoun, the neuter of he or she and him or her applied to a thing without life, a lower animal, a young child…” It’s a lot for such a tiny word to carry. Is it serviceable? perverse? Anachronistic? It’s unscientific, surely? It’s demeaning. Literally. Some animals, like parrot-fish, begin as females then change into males, and with wrasse it’s vice versa, and some animals are difficult to gender, but there are so many we can.

    Cows, for instance. A handsome pair of bull’s castanets will put us on the right track. Antlers, a peacock’s tail, a lion’s mane, a blackbird’s song. Nevertheless we still use “it.” To call a person an “it” is the height of insult, Oh, look, it’s arrived. Pet owners will bridle if, after meeting Daisy the dog a few times, we persist in calling her a he, or an it, so we make an effort. We now graciously extend personhood to chimpanzees and gorillas, who can be he and she, but that’s it; the rest get to be “it” with the pronoun “that.” The gorilla who, but the dog that. What is the point of grammar if not precision?

    Scientists with the strongest commitment to precision are prescribed a grammar unfit for purpose: “…a dead female guillemot with a fully formed, perfectly colored egg in its uterus…” Why, for Darwin’s sake, if he or she has a demonstrable gender, is he or she an it? It is so entrenched that if you question it, you are being sentimental at best, or insanely politically correct.

    Of course, animals won’t know what we call them, but language directs how we think about them. Spiders are “it,” even when triple the size of the male of the species. We make exceptions for the femmes fatales to whom we give humanoid pronouns on the basis that they eat their husbands after copulation.

    Hence the black widow spider gets her name (unpack that for a bit of not-so-covert racism and sexism). Follow the logic of this pronoun exclusion zone, and we can only ask “What” questions of animals and “Who” questions of ourselves, when surely today there is more occasion to wonder who the bear is, rather than what “it” is. The Oxford English Dictionary permits “who” to be used for an animal “with implication of personality”…. But who will decide this?


    In 1935, in a garden on the Greek island of Corfu, the ten-year-old Gerald Durrell made a discovery. He was watching a lacewing on the roses, admiring the delicate insect’s glass-green wings and golden eyes. No third-person singular nonsense for him. She was a she from the instant she lowered her abdomen.

    She remained like that for a moment and then raised her tail, and from it, to my astonishment, rose a slender thread, like a pale hair. Then, on the very tip of this stalk, appeared the egg. The lacewing had a rest, and then repeated the performance until the surface of the rose leaf looked as though it were covered with a forest of tiny club moss. The laying over, the female rippled her antennae briefly and flew off in a mist of green gauze wings.


    As slaves were slavish, animals were brutish, and still are. With our metaphorical language we do things we hardly notice we are doing. Like all powerful tools, words can be used for good and ill. Names foul in the mouth. They can obscure as much as they can reveal. We can use them to pervert, poison and play with our minds. Language structures our consciousness. Changing language changes views, because language is loaded.



    Snake in the grass.

    The Taliban entering Kabul in August 2021 were reported by news commentators as showing their “sheep faces,” although it was expected that they would soon show their “true nature as wolves.” Even the word wild has connotations: out of control, unkempt, mad even. The opposite of civilized, cultivated, sophisticated. What makes us human, or like an animal? Words project thought. And insult.

    Vermin. Scavenger. Pest. Let’s blame the animals.

    Ape /eip/ noun
    1. a large primate that lacks a tail, including the gorilla, chimpanzee, orangutan and gibbon.
    2. an unintelligent or clumsy person. verb (apes, aping, aped)  imitate (someone or something), especially in an absurd or unthinking way…


    Go ape (go crazy), God’s ape (a born fool), go ape-shit…

    If someone called you Lizard Lips, would you like it? Perhaps not. Nor do we like being accused of weaseling out of something, of worming our way in, or of toadying up to someone. We hang adjectives on creatures which they cannot shake off. Sly. There is nothing deceitful about a fox, for he must eat and he must feed his cubs.

    In the same way that we dehumanize our human enemies before we ask our young men to kill them, we en-mean animals. Vermin implies vicious, wicked, detestable; say “vermin” and you are absolved. From vermin to varmint to the near extermination of the wolf. That is how far words can stretch.

    Euphemisms are the cloaks we employ to protect our sensitive souls. Control. Manage. Harvest. We know we do it, but we do it anyway. other words can write things off. Wasteland. Quagmire. Swamp. Wilderness. It is empty. There’s nothing there. Language is so deeply ingrained in our psyches that we succumb to it even though we understand the mechanics of metaphor. Even our efforts to be politically correct produce “non-human animal”—a negative term for what is not us. Non-rhinoceros? Non-pigeon?

    Other words shoot blanks. Like by-catch. A tiny word for a very big thing. A shrimp trawler throws 80 to 90 percent of the sea animals in its nets, dead or dying, overboard. For every pound of shrimps, 26 pounds of sealife must also die. That’s dolphins, turtles, sharks, whales. By-catch. I’ve mentioned “biodiversity” (unless you skipped the introduction).

    Such a flatliner for everything that has life; the incalculable species of insects and fungi and slime, let alone a wren’s beating heart. “Biodiversity” squashes the luminous zing, the sleek glory. Wild living community? Planet inhabitants? It’s not easy. But we need more to care about, more magpie garble, more moose who loom.

    In 2007 the Oxford Junior Dictionary contentiously removed the English words for adder, beaver, boar, heron, herring, kingfisher, lark, leopard, lobster, magpie, minnow, mussel, newt, otter, ox, oyster, panther. As if they were no longer necessary in a modern world.*

    The writer Robin Wall Kimmerer explains how, in the language of her people, the Potawatomi Nation of North America, a “bay” is a noun only if the water is dead and stilled between its shores. Whereas the verb wiikwe-gamaa, to be a bay, releases the water from bondage and lets it live. “To be a bay” holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers. Because it could do otherwise—become a stream or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that, too.

    With our metaphorical language we do things we hardly notice we are doing.

    For the Potawatomi all beings are persons—the Beaver people, the Bear people—and trees are the standing people. Kimmerer calls it the grammar of animacy, that every sentence reminds us of our kinship with the animate world. humans are considered the beings who must look to the teachers all around them. had the human people learnt from the council of animals not to interfere with the sacred purpose of another being, the eagle would look down on a different world and salmon would be crowding up the rivers.

    * The writer Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris responded with The Lost Words, an illustrated book of spell-poems to bring back the excised creatures.


    Let the Animals Speak For Themselves

    “But where a passion yet unborn perhaps
    Lay hidden as the music of the moon
    Sleeps in the plain eggs of the nightingale”

    –Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Aylmer’s Field”

    The female Photuris firefly is as duplicitous with language as we are; she flashes the female semaphore of another firefly species, the Photinus, to lure in the smaller Photinus male. Then she eats him.

    Many songbirds use alarm calls of pure tone, making their whereabouts difficult to locate, but for an elaborate song to impress they tune to a wavelength that will make themselves easy to locate by their own kind. The flourish of the nightingale’s virtuoso performances, his piping, fluting and limitless extravagance, with the added anticipation of every pause, might make us pause to wonder how he is composing as he goes along, and what he is singing.

    Remember, too, that most of the song’s complexity is beyond the scope of our hearing. The thrush in our garden will sing far longer in autumn than necessary to assert himself as the territorial king, appearing totally absorbed, falling under his own spell. The writer Richard Mabey sees birdsong as not necessarily a language “but it is expressive—expressionist, if you like. It conveys a bird’s emotional tone, be it proprietorial, angry, sexy, contented, sociable, exuberant—states of mind we intuitively understand.”

    Consider what the enigmatic giant cuttlefish is flashing with her surround-vision mantle, a living billboard of technicolor signaling. Rippling of stripes, blotches, flares, necklaces of glowing pearls, a cloud passing, dots, jags, washing rainbows. The displays are brain-activated through neural pathways to muscles that contract and relax to reveal or obscure the particular pigment held in each chromatophore—of which there are millions.

    In the layer below, iridophores reflect and bounce light like a stack of mirrors, filtering into blues, greens, violets and silver-whites. To this electric color show add a skin with papillae that can sculpt itself into an array of shapes and textures; then add the gestures of eight independent arms (and two feeding tentacles). A show of horns, hooks, clubs, a flinging of arms aloft; the male will flatten his fourth arm into a flat blade in a show of aggression.

    For goodness’ sake, what do we know? The cuttlefish has a potential banquet of signaling variations of which we can only dream.The combinations of shapes, gesture and color has the potential (if not the need or realization) of a language as complex as our own.

    Peter Godfrey-Smith, writer/philosopher/diver, once observed a cuttlefish from above flash a passing cloud on her right side to another cuttlefish, while her left side remained unchanged and camouflaged. What was she saying?

    Bewilderingly, these magicians of color are supposed to be color-blind.

    With only one kind of photoreceptor cell (we have three), the cephalopod should be unable to respond to different wavelengths of light. But that conclusion is hard to accept from an animal who can trigger displays which appear highly intentional—for camouflage, defense, mating.

    So what’s going on? We don’t know. The suspicion is the answer lies in the unusual off-axis shape of their pupil, and by exploiting something called chromatic blurring to decipher spectral information. Cephalopods have been observed going through tremendous choreographed repertoires on their own, for no apparent purpose.

    Of course, it’s unscientific to suggest they might be practicing, or doing the visual equivalent of whistling, or occupying themselves for their own—dare I say—pleasure? We are having to change our minds about the cephalopods, the mollusc family that includes squid, octopus and cuttlefish.

    Once thought of as unsocial creatures, we now observe gatherings of octopuses where behavior and radiant expression seem to exceed any biological function. It’s possible, yes, that these shimmering shows are just manifestations of electrical activity. More likely, there is more going on out at sea than we imagine.


    Excerpted from Beastly: The 40,000-Year Story of Animals and Us by Keggie Carew. Copyright © 2023. Available from Abrams Books.

    Keggie Carew
    Keggie Carew
    Keggie Carew has lived in West Cork, Barcelona, Texas, Auckland, and London. Before writing, her career was in contemporary art. She is the author of Dadland, which won the 2016 Costa Biography Award, and Quicksand Tales. She lives in Wiltshire, England, where, with her husband, Jonathan Thomson, she established the Underhill Wood Nature Reserve.

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