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On “Pets” and “Its”

I went back to New York to the areas where I grew up and went to college and graduate school for a five-day weekend. I'd been longing for NYC and, as usual, thinking about moving back.

The Nor'easter cured me of that longing.

I visited my three godchildren and a handful of friends, and all but one friend has at least one child. As someone who's about to have a one-year old in her life, I was particularly aware of the part animals play in the lives of the children and how animals are talked about. Here are some observations:

  • When reading a book about gorillas to/with a seven-year old, I was struck by the mixed messages the book sent. Here's the book, and in the preview you can see that in the beginning when the gorilla being described is male he is referred to as "he." So far so good. But what you don't see in the preview is that later on gorillas are referred to as "its," and when I was reading aloud and came upon that word I was unable to say it. I changed the word to whichever sex made sense–and one always did. So the children are being taught that gorillas can be inanimate objects or living beings based on pronouns alone.
  • The reason we need to save the gorillas and their habitats (it's a book on gorilla "conservation") is–and this is from memory so there could be more–that gorillas have thumbs, just like humans do. Also, the have families (as if other animals don't). Meanwhile, gorillas don't live in a traditional human family structure of mom, dad and kids, but somehow their family structure is an important reason for us to save them. I'm sure intelligence was in there somewhere, but the fact is that gorillas are presented as more important and more human than other animals, therefore they are worthy of saving.
  • While visiting another set of children who have a lizard in a tank as well as a dog, the dog is called "he" but the lizard is called "it." Meanwhile, the lizard has a male name so you'd think he'd be called "he." All animals except the dog are called "it" (I did a little experiment to see what would happen).
  • When referring to cats, dogs and horses of unknown sex, the children would randomly assign sex, with the conventionally "prettier" animals being called "she." That makes sense to me. I remember that as a child I called all cats "she" and dogs "he" in the absence of a name. That made sense to me for some reason and nobody stopped me.
  • "Nobody stopped me" brings me to the parents, who were all omnivores (though there were two ex-vegetarians) and who were all thoroughly unaware of the language the children were using to refer to animals. That makes sense, as it's not in their awareness, so why would they attend to it in their kids.

And this brings me to two topics: parenting and publishing. All of the mixed messages or negative messages about animals that kids are surrounded with can be combatted/turned around by parents. And the reverse is true: If parents are unaware, it should be no surprise that whatever compassion or sense of justice a child has is not nurtured.

And if the messages a child is receiving in school and at home, via textbooks and library books, are speciesist and remain unchallenged, we would have no reason to expect the child to not grow up into a nonhuman animal-using speciesist.

Therefore, one of the many things we need, aside from the obvious of more vegan parents, is a line of nonspeciesist books for each age/stage. We need language that doesn't support a divide between "pet" animals and everyone else. We need to start referring to animals as "he" and "she," even if we might not be correct. We do that with cats and dogs already, right?

We can either bombard the publishing industry with proposals for books for kids, or we can create a publishing company ourselves for this specific purpose. There might be a handful of PeTA efforts around suffering, and there is "That's Why We Don't Eat Animals," but what we need is a series–a franchise that makes veganism appealing. If vampires or wizards can be "the rage," someone can make vegans just as popular if they can develop and write a great story with characters kids love.

I put this out there to you all because I'm not that person. I'm a terrible fiction writer. But someone out there isn't.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. You're absolutely right. Children absorb the subtleties of what they see, hear and read. I don't have children myself, but I do work in the book industry, and I'm very aware of the predominance of speciesist attitudes in children's books.
    I recently came across this site: which reviews books from a veg perspective. They have some great recommendations, including a Thanksgiving story in which children on a school trip smuggle turkeys out of a farm to rescue them! Maybe you'll find some books you can give your godchildren to spark a greater awareness & sympathy for non-human animals. =)

    March 18, 2010
  2. I was just going to suggest vegbooks, too, but vegan salt beat me too it 🙂

    Mary wrote: "When referring to cats, dogs and horses of unknown sex, the children would randomly assign sex, with the conventionally 'prettier' animals being called 'she.' That makes sense to me."

    That's always annoyed me, actually. It seems to perpetuate the idea that females ought to be valued for their beauty whereas males should be valued for intellect or strength. And in fact, in many species, the males are the more attractive ones (birds especially).

    March 18, 2010
  3. Elaine,
    It annoys me too and it's certainly not right that I made that assumption or that anyone else does. But because of how we're conditioned, it *makes sense* that that assumption is made.

    March 18, 2010
  4. Mary, you say, "We need to start referring to animals as "he" and "she," even if we might not be correct. We do that with cats and dogs already, right?"

    Well, no, not really. I can't tell you how often I hear cats and dogs reffered to as "it," sometimes even by rescuers talking about a specific dog or cat they are trying to get help for. And I once heard my former upstairs neighbor say of her own cat, "don't let it out."

    People never cease to amaze me.

    March 18, 2010
  5. Al #

    I have a 3 1/2 year old daughter that I read to quite a bit. We received a lot of hand-me-down books and I decided that, unless they were completely horrible, I'd read them to her. I've read so many books that I now change "it" to "he" or "she" almost without thinking. And if there's a part in the book that is blatantly wrong from an animal rights perspective, I talk to her about it in a matter of fact way, telling her exactly what's wrong with the picture. They're all teachable moments, and I'd rather she be first exposed to things like that in the comfort of her own home where I can calmly explain them to her than when she goes to school or something.

    I've often thought that there needs to be more pro-animal children's books out there, but like you, I don't see myself as the one to write them. On the other hand, this whole post just gave me the kick in the butt I think I need to start another blog about speciesist media intended for children. Sort of like, but instead of focusing on the potentially positive media, I'd instead illuminate the pervasiveness of speciesism in seemingly benign media like children's books, TV and movies. And it would be more criticism, less review. Oh, and a hell of a lot more snark.

    So, I guess nothing like, actually.

    March 18, 2010
  6. Olivia #

    How about textbooks? Don't we need a pro-AR publishing company to produce those and get them into the schools — at least into the hands of private institutions and open-minded parents of home-schoolers?

    I have to watch my words when I'm with my young nephews. I'm not "allowed" by their parents to say anything that sounds like a vegan or vegetarian message, or anything implying that animals have rights or are as important as humans are in scheme of things. Last time I didn't realize they didn't know what "slaughter" is, so when they asked me what I meant when I said that a horse in a book we finished was lucky he wasn't slaughtered, I realized I'd stepped "over" that line. I had to explain to their mom (my sis). I'm glad she understood that it was an honest mistake. They were 6 and 8 at the time. They also asked me why I didn't want to kill bees or wasps or mosquitoes. I told them these insects don't bother me because they must feel my love for them. That got them thinking! 🙂

    March 19, 2010
  7. Thank you, Dr. Martin, for such an exemplary article. And to all who have commented and obviously have both compassion and logic. This is a topic that has bothered me for some time, especially after I found two enlightening pages on

    I finally decided to try and take it a bit more public by creating a Facebook Page (where I will be posting the link to this post):!/pages/Is-An-Animal-She-He-or-It/180947661930907?v=wall.

    January 5, 2011

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