Importance of Word Choice in Animal Rescue
Language is possibly the most important tool of human interaction. As the primary way of communicating, it can become casual, second nature; something we don’t give much thought to doing because it comes so freely. But word choice is crucial and can change the whole meaning of a sentence and, more importantly, how a person receives it.
In this post, we’re going to analyze connotation: (the suggesting of a meaning by a word apart from the thing it explicitly names or describes) behind common rescue-related phrases. Linguist Keith Allan, PhD of Edinburgh explains connotation as being ‘effects that arise from encyclopaedic knowledge’ and ‘from experiences, beliefs, and prejudices about the contexts in which the expression is typically used.’ In his peer-reviewed article The Pragmatics of Connotation Allan said that to identify a connotation of a term ‘is to identify the community attitudes towards it.’
In rescue, our entire mission focuses on changing how our communities see animals and how they treat them, so our messages should be strong, consistent, and send the right message. Let’s look at a few of these terms and expressions.
Adoption vs. ‘For Sale’ or ‘To buy’
This is probably the most important as far as word choice, as it sets the tone for the everything that revolves around the rescue movement. Many people come up to me during Adoption Days at Petsmart and say, “Are these for sale?” My response is always ‘No, these kitties are not for sale, they are up for adoption to good homes.’ Although many of these people do, in fact, realize that the cats are rescued, it is important that we don’t allow people to talk about them as though they are products.
‘For Sale’ implies there is inventory; products to be bought and sold for profit. Animals are not either of these things, but of course breeders and pet stores do treat them as such. If we don’t create a definitive line between the rescue of animals and the sale of animals, our movement is weakened. The difference needs to be clear: animals are sentient beings that are to be ‘adopted’ into forever families, not bought.
Cost vs. Donation
This goes along with the previous one. ‘Cost’ typically indicates a markup on a product where profit is to be made, which is far from the truth. Explain the adoption ‘cost’ as a donation fee or adoption donation. It may also be helpful to briefly explain what the donation covers and what it goes towards. For example, I usually explain it like this: ‘The adoption donation for this cat is $100, which covers her spay surgery, vaccinations and FIV/FeLV testing. It also helps us to care for the nearly 60 other cats and kittens that are currently in our care.’ This makes people more receptive and defers from the idea that anyone is ‘profiting’ from rescue.
Euthanize vs. Kill
Euthanasia: ‘the act or practice of killing or permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals (as persons or domestic animals) in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy.’
Everyone is familiar with this definition, yet it is used, almost always without question, to describe the murder of three to four million companion animals each year in the U.S alone. This is a euphemism that helps distance humans from the guilt and involvement of these deaths, and anyone who supports rescue should avoid the term. (Please note I am not referring to the decision to euthanize a suffering animal companion when they are ill or elderly.)
Animals that enter shelters because they are stray, abandon, surrendered or otherwise unwanted are not put to death as a mercy killing. It is murder, no two ways about it. I don’t mean to say that people who work at kill shelters are horrible people who are responsible for the killings. In truth, the guilt and the responsibility to end the killing is shared by entire communities. To call it euthanasia only encourages people to feel better about it; its a hard truth, of course, but if people think of these deaths are merciful- and the euphemism encourages this- they aren’t going to feel compelled to do much about it.
Owner vs. Guardian
The term ‘owner’ implies that animals are property; belongings rather than feeling creatures that are part of a family. It may be a subtle connotation, but there nonetheless, and sustains the concept that when humans are done with an animals, they can disown or dispose of ‘it’ like an old television or vehicle: leave it behind, pass it off to any willing taker, dump it at a shelter to make it someone else’s problem.
Guardian, on the other hand, suggests that we are their caretakers, protectors, sentinels for their well being. Our job is not to own like property or control our companion animals, but to shower them with love and affection, tend to their needs, and look out for their interests for as long as they are with us. Changing this one term has the potential to create a new level of ethics when it comes to our furred/feathered/scaled family members.
Declawing: Routine Procedure or Cruel Amputation
Declawing is slowly getting the terrible reputation it deserves, but many people still think it is acceptable because veterinarians offer it as a service. Even though some veterinarians will do it, it is far from a routine or ethical ‘procedure’ and is in fact extremely painful with many adverse affects, some that last for the cat’s life. In actuality, declawing is the amputation of the first digits of the paws, like cutting off the first joints on your fingers and toes. It is a mutilation. What’s worse, it is done because people care more about their furniture’s appearance than the well being of their cats.
It is important that when we discuss this topic with the public, we don’t speak of it lightly. It is not done in the best interest of the cats, like a spay/neuter surgery, and is nothing short of cruelty.
Wild or Feral
Wild or ‘feral’ cats and strays are two different things (see here), but when talking about feral/wild cats, feral is the ideal term. ‘Wild’ implies that they are relatives of wild species, when they are actually the descendants of domesticated house cats. They have become unsociable, but are not a different species than those we keep as companions. I also try to incorporate the phrase ‘community cats’ when talking about feral colonies because it suggests- rightfully so- that feral cats are not the problem or responsibility of a single feeder or property owner, but of the community as a whole. For more feral cat terms, visit Alley Cat Allies’s ‘Speaking of Cats’ page.
If you have thoughts or experiences on this or a related topic, please share in the comments!
About Marissa WeberI graduated with a BA in Communications from Monmouth University, and am thrilled to combine my passions with writing. I have been vegan for over a decade and am a board member of a pet rescue/adoption agency, so my day is filled with animal activism from sunrise to sundown! I wouldn't have it any other way. I also enjoy working on my yoga practice, world travel, and getting tattoos.
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