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Use Your Words

Guest blogger Julie Morris tackles some loaded terms we use to talk about animals and the work we do. What do they mean to you?

 

I remember years ago, when my friend’s kids were young and they would be trying to get some point across. My friend would calmly say, “Use your words,” when they were frustrated and communicating through pointing, grunting and, in some cases, out-right tantrums. The updated version for adults and my professional colleagues is “Choose your words.” 

Simply put, words matter. Words are powerful. They set the stage for future actions. There is a whole movement called “Spread the Word to End the Word” around the use of the word “retarded.” I think it’s obvious why this is important—the R-word is derogatory and offensive, and it hurts. Language impacts attitudes, and attitudes impact actionschoose your words wisely.

In animal welfare, we have an entire esoteric language used amongst ourselves, and similar or slightly different language for public consumption. In fact, the term animal welfare in and of itself is a bit of insider baseball. What does it say? Does it mean regulatory status quo? Does it refer to the use of animals in food, research and clothing? The U.S. National Library of Medicine states animal welfare is “the protection of animals in laboratories or other specific environments by promoting their health through better nutrition, housing and care.” The American Veterinary Medical Association says that “measuring and protecting an animal’s welfare requires attention to its physical and mental health. The actions and choices of people impact the welfare of all domestic and many wild animals.” Does the term animal welfare encompass the Five Freedoms? For that matter, what’s the difference between animal welfare, animal protection and animal rights? And does it matter? 

Consider these popular terms or phrases:

Isn’t it time to put the term overpopulation to bed? Pet overpopulation is a simple phrase often used in attempt to describe a complex, varied and dynamic issue. Though there may be disagreement among groups as to whether overpopulation exists, the better question for any community to consider is whether or not the community has the capacity to care for pets who are at risk or homeless in that communityand if not, how can those resources be made available? Now consider homelessness. That’s easy—homeless animals are those animals without homes. There may be a great demand for pets within the community, but the community is not utilizing the shelter for that need. Or there may be regional pockets that have too much supply and not enough demand, but overpopulation as an overall term sends the wrong message.

How about Forever Home? What is a forever home? And isn’t that kind of like finding the Holy Grail? Does a good home or even a great home have to be forever? Isn’t a loving or caring home enough? Face it, s*&% happens to the best of us, and sometimes pets and people aren’t the best match (anyone ever heard of divorce?). Let’s rethink this term and be realistic, and let’s aim to place animals in loving, caring homes.

Adoptable? What exactly is adoptable? The term is commonly used by organizations to denote a set of physical and behavioral characteristics that THEY deem appropriate for animals available for adoption. But don’t communities differ? Shouldn’t each animal be treated on an individual basis? And what if I (or a member of the public) am interested in adopting an animal who isn’t deemed to be “adoptable.” Does that mean he’s not adoptable? Does that mean I can’t adopt him?

I’m not even going to tackle No-Kill. Just suffice it to say for now, no-kill is very complex. It is both aspirational and refers to a host of philosophies and practices around reducing or eliminating euthanasia. And speaking of euthanasia, how about that term? The definition of euthanasia, according to Merriam Webster, is “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.” Euthanasia is literally translated from the Greek root word meaning “good death,” but generally refers to the provision of a humane, pain-free death. Is that the same thing? Is that what happens in all shelters, at all times?

And to end on a lighter and personal note, one word that sticks in my craw is furbabies (or if you must, and I hope you don’t, furkids). Seriously, pets may be members of your family, but they are not your kids! Yes, you love them and they make your life whole, but they are not your children.

What words work for you? What bothers you? What words would you prefer we use or don’t use? Love to hear what you think!

 

Julie Morris is the Senior Vice President for the Community Outreach (CO) Program Group for the ASPCA. CO’s work focuses primarily on fewer dogs and cats at risk in communities. She is about to celebrate her 25th anniversary at the ASPCA. Before joining the ASPCA, positions held included Executive Director of the Humane Society of Huron Valley, Ann Arbor, MI, and Director of Operations at the Michigan Humane Society in Detroit.

 

 

 

 

Related Links

More from Julie: "‘Tis the Season To Be Thankful” 

Blog: “Home-able” 

Blog: “Jargon Hunting”

Blog: "Looking for a Soul Mate Instead of a Forever Home"

Comments

Comment

Thank you, Julie. I would like the term guardian to replace the term owner for use when referring to companion animals / pets to denote the sentience of the being, unlike inanimate objects, which from our limited perception, seem to be without sentience.

Comment

Risa -- In my writing to promote animals at my local animal shelter, I struggle with a good word to use to replace owner. My problem with the word guardian is that it seems too lawyerly, and being a guardian is not the essence of the feelings I have for my own dogs. The relationship is deeper than a mere guardian. Plus, if I'm my dogs' guardian, then they by definition are my wards, which doesn't feel right either. Sometimes I will use the term human as in "Fido's human, Lisa, will send us an update after his surgery." But the word human still seems awkward to me -- as if I'm writing for an episode of Lost In Space. So I usually stick with the word owner and hope someday to have a better alternative.

Comment

We prefer the phrase "pet parent" to "owner" or "guardian." I think it's a more accurate way to express our love for our pets than "guardian," and it makes it clear we don't feel pets are things to be owned.

I'm also going to have to agree with other commenters that "furbabies" is absolutely accurate, though I appreciate the author's point that word choices can be very divisive. Consider which phrases you want to use or avoid then stick to your guns!

Comment

May I include another word to describe a pet "Companion"? Thoughts - Guardian seems a bit legalize, owner denotes control, and kid possibly trouble.

Comment

Thank you on the "Furbabies" comment. The world is becoming a perverse place where they put animals equal or above human life, perfect example is the previous comment to change owner to guardian. Shelters are converting to this "cultural" change, meaning every animal must be saved at any cost. Because of this we are seeing more people and animals being injured by aggressive animals adopted from shelters. We are also seeing family pets and livestock killed by animals adopted from shelters. What the cultural change movement doesn't realize is that the people who adopt these aggressive animals and have to deal with the consequences will never adopt or refer friends and family to adopt from a shelter again. If you've ever been saddled with a behaviorally or medically unsound animal you will most likely never do it again. Your life revolves around that animals behavior instead of that animal fitting into your life.
Shelters and rescue groups need to be responsible with the animals they place into the community, the public is relying on our expertise when bringing a new pet into their home. We can't continue putting the public and the communities pets at risk by placing dangerous animals back into the community.

Comment

Thank you for your comment, Cathy. The behavior of pets, and their people, is an interesting challenge to manage. We do have a responsibility to protect our communities from pets who have been identified as dangerous. And we must balance that responsibility with the further responsibility to do the very best we can to provide lifesaving opportunities for the pets admitted into our care. Some families are ready to be a hero for a new dog or cat with behavior or medical issues, and many families are not. As with so much about our work – transparency is key. We must share what we know about each animal and let adopters choose their path and their pet – providing support beyond adoption to help ensure success for pets and their people.

Julie Morris
Senior Vice President
ASPCA Community Outreach

Comment

Julie not every woman dreams of popping out children to give themselves an identity. For many of us in rescue, our cats and dogs ARE our kids, we don't say furkids because the fur part doesn't matter. We love them as our kids. I personally hate human children, most adults, and prefer the company of animals.

Comment

Thank you! I know a ton of people who the words furkids or furbabies or babies is appropriate. They think of these animals as "kids". Think about it this way: if someone thinks oh its just an animal, whatever, they may not take care of it as well as someone who says I love these creatures like I would if they were my own. I will treat them as well as I can because of how I think of them.

Especially after the trauma of being given up for adoption, some may have been a while in rescue/SPCA/HS. I have one who was in for 3+ years that I am fostering/adopting at the age of 9. Don't they deserve some leeway?

Vic

Comment

I will always call my pets my furbabies. Not everyone has or even wants human children. I certainly don't. My dog and cats are my babies and in my opinion are far superior to the two legged variety!

Comment

Thanks for the comments, folks. Before things get too far down the track relative to my personal note regarding “furbabies” or “furkids,” let me reiterate that, first, it’s just that, my personal taste. The words push some buttons for me – and clearly for some of you, too!

To the extent that my expression of personal taste sounded like judgment, my apologies. It’s the language that bugs me, not the notion that pets are our family nor the emotion or the place that they hold in our hearts and lives. I hold the animal companions I’ve had in my life near and dear; they’ve meant the world to me.

What the passion illustrates for me more than anything is the foundational point I hoped to make while writing this blog, and hope not to have pulled too much attention from—that is, words are powerful. They can inspire unity, instigate division, and – at their best – initiate more words, by which I mean dialogue. We should choose them thoughtfully – and clearly that’s a maxim worth revisiting myself!

Julie Morris
Senior Vice President, Community Outreach
ASPCA

Comment

Nice blog, Julie, and good choice of words to highlight and think about!

Comment

Thanks for bringing up how our words can instigate division. That certainly does happen in the the animal sheltering/rehoming pet world. You bring up the term no-kill. No-kill can be a misleading and divisive term. I volunteer for the only open admission shelter in my county (population 1 million) – and it’s the only immediate open admission shelter in the area. What that means is that the shelter, by law, does not refuse any domesticated animal that is brought through its doors — at any time. Because of this, the shelter receives many of the animals that other "no-kill" shelters and limited-admission shelters turn away. Many non-governmental organizations (e.g., rescues, humane societies) refer to themselves as no-kill and shelters like mine as “kill shelters.” While it's sounds good in their social and print marketing, it really is deceiving the public. It's not giving the public the full story.

Comment

Hi Julie,

Agreed – words can instigate division. At the ASPCA, we’ve seen the best opportunities for lifesaving, collaborative work at a community level when divisive language is set aside, and animal advocates focus instead on how organizations with differing operating philosophies can work together toward common goals. True success, at a community level, is only be achieved when all animals at risk in a community have access to the resources needed to keep them safe.

Julie Morris
Senior Vice President, Community Outreach
ASPCA

Comment

I completely agree! My shelter is required to be open admission by city ordinance, we do practice managed intake but if we 100% turn people away we would technically be breaking the law. So this makes us the local "kill shelter" - it makes me cringe! When you're known around town as the "kill shelter," and that image is your baseline, your starting point, it's only with tremendous difficulty that you get the general pet-owning population to visit your shelter!

Comment

I think we could debate the words "No kill" till the end of time. You will always have people that take it to the extreme. At our shelter we are very clear when we tell people we don't euthanize for time or space. I think if we as rescues/shelters did a better job of explaining that to the public, they would have a better understanding of what that means. The perception need to be changes of what "No kill" means, if nothing else for the safety of the public alone.

Comment

This is exactly the reason that I question the emphasis on choosing the "right" words. "Animal welfare." "Adoptable." "Guardian vs. owner." These will always be subjective things. My concern is that the important mission of "animal welfare" (or whatever any individual chooses to call what they feel is their mission)will get lost in the weeds of political correctness and rhetoric.

Comment

That's a good clarification of your point regarding "furbabies", Julie. I share your distaste for that term (as well as just the term "baby", as in "someone help this baby" when referring to an animal in need) but unleashed a firestorm on my personal Facebook page some time ago when I posted that opinion! To me it is a demeaning way of talking about the animals in our lives, although I know that is the furthest thing from the minds of those who use it. For me as well, however, it is the terminology, not the passion or the love behind it, that irks me. I consider the animals in my life to be my family members (and I do not have, nor do I want, any children), but there is just something grating to me about calling them furbabies or furkids. Your explanation is well written.

Comment

I was interested in your comments about "furkids" because I recently responded to a FB post for a rescue site where someone was upset because she was criticized for saying her pets were her family. I made the point that I didn't care what other people said about their pets but for myself I try to keep in mind that they are another species and that it is my sacred honor to care for them in the best way I can, but my family is humans. I think my post went over like a lead balloon. I think it's really fine for people to see their pets that way, I just don't. Having said that, I think *we* are *their* family, or even parents and again, it is my sacred honor to fulfill that role to the best of my ability.

I also have fretted about "owner". I think of myself as a caregiver, and I just try and avoid sentence structure that would back me into a corner on that.

And finally I have an addition: Housebroken. I prefer "house trained".

Comment

Julie; What you write makes lots of sense to me. Animals should be appreciated for what they are - when it comes to cats, as an example, some may not prefer to be considered "furbabies".
They think of themselves as mature equals in a household. I also believe that the term "owner" is important to retain. It means that we have a legal right of possession and that an animal cannot be claimed by someone else. The term has nothing to do with the strong emotional ties we have to our pets as family members. If more people were willing to claim ownership of, and take responsibility for, community cats they feed at doorsteps we would have fewer litters born that end up in the shelters.

Comment

In my opinion, the term pet overpopulation remains valuable. It puts the responsibility on people. As long as there are cats subjected to life outdoors, rabbits euthanized for lack of space, and so on and so forth, pet overpopulation sums up the problem and suggests a solution.

Comment

I love semantics, and in the animal rights world there is plenty of argument over words. I perform trap, neuter and return in my community. Some people argue with me over the use of "return" instead of "release".
Un adoptable is the word we apply to feral cats because the shelters can quickly and easily find a home for a cat that runs purring to visitors expecting to be picked up and hugged. Which creates more space in the shelter for more adoptable cats. Meanwhile the non adoptable cats are happier in their wooded colony with their friends and family anyway. But my home is full of "unadoptable" cats that were too shy for people to adopt after I had fostered them and their mother through pregnancy, weaning. These un adoptable cats love us, purr and warble for attention but are not lap cats. It is a very sad situation, because the domestic house cat is programmed to be a part of the human community.

Comment

I loved this post about the terminology we use everyday with the public, staff and volunteers. It's thought provoking and also I must confess that I found it gratifying to see one of my least favorite terms, “forever home,” on the list. Great post!

Comment

Terrific column! Like you, I have a deep love and words which has led me to my most recent job in communications for a major humane society in Massachusetts. In my 30+ years in public relations/communications, I've never worked in an industry where words mattered more. I enjoyed reading this and let me add one more to the list - using the word "it" to describe an animal in any situation. I understand the desire for gender neutrality in writing, but using "it" is really cold and completely undermines the intent. Like a brochure I was given last month (when I had to euthanize my beloved pet cat)that addressed questions/concerns about grieving a pet and kept referring to the animal as "it." Completely ruined the effort!

Comment

I agree that these days words are used by society to 'shelter' people from the real meanings that 'should' be conveyed. Especially "No Kill"...the majority of "No Kill shelters", like Julie said earlier, are those who do turn away animals when they have no room. Which is extremely misleading and gives municipal shelters a bad reputation because they "CAN'T" turn away a stray or starving animal regardless if they have room or not. I personally think that "NO KILL" should never be used unless there are strict regulations like: 1) Cannot turn away animals in need 2) ALL animals put down MUST be accounted for. Some shelters say their "No Kill" and put ALL animals they put down as "Unadoptable" when to anyone that animal WAS adoptable, they just said they weren't in order to justify the killing. That should be a crime in itself.

Comment

Thanks for your comment, DJ. I think it’s important that we use words intended to deepen the public’s understanding of our work. We should embrace the complexity of issues in animal welfare and sheltering – and not be afraid to use whatever number of words are necessary to be transparent in describing that work. Perhaps for any particular word or phrase – what’s most important is engaging the communities we serve in a conversation to ensure that what we mean is also what they understand.

Julie Morris
Senior Vice President, Community Outreach
ASPCA

Comment

Thanks for an important blog. I agree the words we choose say a lot. I once got into an argument with a shelter director for referring to the animals as "it". She looked bemused and said "they aren't human". Not the point.
I too prefer my pets to human children, and see nothing wrong with that. It's why I don't agree with the "forever home" argument. Our pets aren't like spouses we can divorce, but children who depend on us for their entire lives. If an animal is truly unhappy in a home, that's one thing, but "s*&% happens" doesn't cut it.
I too dislike "furbabies" and related terms, not because of the relationship they imply but the immaturity.

Comment

Your home might not be a forever home but if you adopt a pet you should make sure you will care for it for it's life, which might mean finding it another good home, but it does not mean adopting a pet and then when it is older or you are bored take it to the shelter. I think adoption comes with a responsibility that you don't just get rid of the pet.

Comment

Julie I can't thank you enough for redefining "forever home". I run a non-profit, no kill cat rescue group and half of the animals we intake are those who are being surrendered by an owner for many, various, numerous reasons. As you put it "&*^% happens". The problem becomes once you give up an animal, this can become a red flag to adopters because they may not believe you will/can commit for a lifetime, which may be true. Should this mean you can never adopt an animal again ? Maybe your at a much better place in life and you can give an animal a great, lasting home, will you be forever turned down because at one point in your life "&*^%" happened. Thank you for hitting on this point.

Comment

I have some issues with terms like "reactive" when the reality is "aggressive." Of course any action is going to be "reactive" (even a blink of the eye). But when we've got a "dog-aggressive" dog, that fact should not be hidden or couched in sugar-coated language to a prospective adopter. "Should be only dog," is insider talk, often indicative of huge risks. It should be weighed in terms of the adopters' capacity and willingness to learn how to handle both the dog and dog fights. It should require solid OB training of the dog BEFORE any adoption. And that training should include no dashing out any open doors, or pulling and breaking loose from collars or leashes to go after another dog.

Comment

I'm annoyed by the phrase "foster failure," used when a foster family decides to permanently adopt the rescue dog that was temporarily in their care. When our rescue places a dog in a good foster home, and they realize that dog is their perfect dog, their heart dog, and they adopt it, how is that a failure of any kind?

Yes, we may lose a foster home (sometimes, but not always -- often they just take a break for a few months to let their new dog adjust). However, we ended up with a perfect placement, with a family that knows with certainty that all the dogs quirks are the kind of quirks they love. To me, that's pretty dad-gum successful.

Comment

We are having this conversation right now with our friends at Animal Control. New leadership has come in and is seeing, for the first time (new to Animal Welfare, and shocked by some of the language), some of the terms that are used, so it is such perfect timing for this article. I am wondering, however, what words and phrases we SHOULD use instead if there are better alternatives. For some, there are not easy answers. My organization is a no-kill, but that term bothers me from the standpoint that there is not a specific definition, and the public's perception of no-kill is much more straight forward than what I've seen happen in no-kill organizations, and what happens is all over the board! I would never label animal control as a kill organization or a high kill organization and I find those labels divisive and offensive. A few others for me personally; forever homes, or even worse furever home, euthanasia used when it is not an animal that is suffering other than because it is locked up and homeless but has something medically or behaviorally we deem not fixable without (fill in the blank) resource(s) that is lacking or may be dangerous to other animals, calling animal control the pound/dog catcher, oh, and my favorite, "someone needs to STEP UP for this animal" famously written on Facebook pages by keyboard warriors. These warriors complain about a broken system and stir the pot on a regular basis but do more harm than good with their gossip and divisive language. Furbabies/furkids, meh, I have human kids and far more pets than human kids. I don't call them my furkids and might do an internal eye roll when someone really goes overboard with using those terms, but if they give the pets a good home and don't stir the already-dysfunctional animal welfare Facebook pot, they can say whatever they want.

Comment

The knee jerk reaction I have to people not liking the term "furbabies" or "furkids" because animals are not kids is that it brings to question how do you define a kid? Something you gave birth to? Adoptive parents and those of us who are both step parents and biological parents would disagree. Is it the amount of love and care you put into another creature that depends on you for survival? Because I certainly know some human kids who are left in situations by their birth parents that a dog or cat of mine never would. So if you call them your furbabies, it means they are that level of importance and love to you. Maybe we should revisit who gets to call their kids "babies" based on the level of care they are providing, and take offense to that. If biology has nothing to do with it and it is based on love, I see no reason there should be limits put on the terms we use to signify that.

Comment

I think you are really pulling at straw to be politically correct. Terms are just that...terms. No harm no foul...you say to mat o and I say tom at o. Let's not go down the p.c. road!

Comment

The word "Aggression" gets thrown around a lot. Like just saying a dog is "aggressive" sums everything up and gives a clear picture of the dog. When it most certainly does not.

Comment

Thanks, Julie, for the insightful blog. Words can certainly build walls between factions and destroy the possibility of collaboration for the benefit of our common cause. I flinch at the words "kill shelter" because I have seen so many caring people struggle to do their best to improve adoption and standards of care in open admission shelters , only to have to endure that hurtful label.

Comment

At the core of dog reactivity, lies stress, anxiety or fear - which can lead to aggression, but not always.

Comment

What other term can you use for "pet overpopulation," that will be easily understandable for the layman? "Pet overpopulation" is usually used to explain the importance of spaying and neutering, which I think we can all agree that spaying and neutering is extremely important, and does reduce the population of unwanted pets. Using "pet overpopulation" is such an easy way to describe the benefits of spaying and neutering, in such an efficient and succinct way, that will not confuse your average person. Sure there may be reasonable and logical reasons for "pet overpopulation," but don't we want people to spay and neuter their pets, without engaging them in issues they may have no understanding of or interest to learn? Or no?

Comment

One term I would like to see go by the wayside is "no kill". I don't see why we can't promote "humane" shelters and rescues instead of using a term that many people don't understand. I think shelters that are obligated to take in all strays and cannot turn anyone away are being hurt by being viewed as "kill" facilities, despite all of their best intentions. Most no kill facilities do not explain their definition of no kill, do not show their statistics and are not open with their euthanasia policies. I have seen comments time and time again when I worked at the county shelter about not supporting it because of its kill status. To me, this term is used mainly as a ploy to raise funds and attract people away from facilities who really need the public support. If every facility was open about using this terminology as it pertains to them with published stats, I would have less of an issue with it.

Comment

Thanks, Nicole. As I’ve commented previously, the work of animal sheltering is complex, and really no simple, catchy phrase truly helps the public understand the nature of that work. I agree with you that shelters must be transparent about animal sheltering data and policies/practices, and further suggest that shelters assume responsibility for ensuring the public understands the challenges and opportunities for pets at risk in the communities they serve and that we all have an obligation to not let language get in the way of collaboration and partnership. We know the needs of pets and their people in any community are best served when organizations with differing operational philosophies work together to ensure all animals at risk in a community have access to the services they need.

Julie Morris
Senior Vice President, Community Outreach
ASPCA

Comment

For me semantics are not nearly as important as actions. I can live with whatever you call your 'critters, pets etc' if you treat them with compassion, and the care that sentient creatures deserve. As my mother used to say 'actions speak louder than words.

Comment

My concern is the use of the term "save rate" when communicating with the public. I see organizations celebrating the increases in their save rates, while I wonder how the supporter's mind doesn't go straight to the number of animals who weren't saved? You'd never say "We only killed 20% of animals this year!" We shouldn't say "Our save rate increased to 80% this year!" "Save rate" is desensitized inside language. Instead, talk about your work to save more lives. Illustrate it with stories. Remember that emotion drives connection.

Comment

Great article! I admit, however, that I do use the terms "fur baby" and "fur kid". But when I do I understand my beloved pets cannot do or go where real children can. I also know I'm not going to leave little Suzy (a real child) in a cage while I run to the store. (No, I do not have real children.) Hence the reason "fur" is in front of both of those other words.

To me when I hear an adopter/guardian/owner/pet parent - whatever you want to call them - refer to a pet as their " fur child" I feel they are going to care for that animal to the best of their abilities and that makes me happy. Isn't that really all we want for our rescues?
Let's face it, some pet parents take better care of their animals than some real parents do of their real children unfortunately. And some pets are better behaved than some kids! LOL!
As long as those using the terms "fur baby" or fur kid" understand the difference between their pets and real children and both pet parents and real parents respect those differences I feel you can use those terms and do so in a healthy way. Thank you!
P.S. Totally agree on "no-kill".

Comment

This is an excellent column and I want to go back and read through all of the comments, but first I've got to go to work :) In the meantime, I'd like to offer something I've been mulling over lately to hear other thoughts. My pet peeve, is the term "rescued". Obviously, there are some animals whose situation is so dire that when they are pulled from it, they are certainly being saved. But, as you mentioned, life shows up sometimes and people have to surrender pets for a variety of reasons. Referring to those animals as "rescued" does a disservice not only to their former caretaker whose heart may be broken for having to give up the pet, but also to that animal herself by insinuating that they've come from a bad situation. This seems to me to imply that the animal comes with issues. Thoughts?

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