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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 actions—choose 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 community—and 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.

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 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?


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, where she is entering her 26th year. CO’s work focuses primarily on fewer dogs and cats at risk in communities. 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.



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