Compassion In Action

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Speaking Compassionately and Honestly

As we progress past old stereotypes and antiquated practices in animal protection, our language must also evolve. It is one of our most powerful tools but too often we use words that create division between ourselves and those who could be our strongest allies and even words that detract from our own mission. If we don’t use our words thoughtfully and with purpose, we are wasting opportunities and hindering progress.

For example, even those most demanding of empathy for animals, continue, thoughtlessly, to reference animals as “it” and us as “owners”. This perpetuates the idea that animals are our property, rather than the individuals that we, as their guardians, have the privilege of caring for and the responsibility to protect. If the sex of the animal is unknown, it is certainly better to hazard a guess and be wrong 50% of the time than refer to them as objects and be wrong 100% of the time.

That is an exception to the general importance of accuracy in our language. One of the most commonly misused words in animal sheltering on an international level is “euthanasia”. Webster’s defines euthanasia as “the act or practice of killing or permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy”. As it relates to the millions of animals that enter into animal shelters every year and don’t make it out alive because of space, behavior, breed, or age, they are not euthanized, they are put to death. Honesty about our problems enables us to solve them.

And as we strive for a compassionate society for animals, we must also make every effort to unify as a movement. This is the only way we can be truly effective in our collective mission of saving lives, ending suffering, and promoting compassion. Labels like “kill” and “no kill” are alienating and the words themselves are polarizing, not allowing for understanding of the complex nature of the philosophies and issues they try to define in one or two words. Neither term is easily or consistently defined and therefore neither serves an effective purpose.

These labels inspire a disabling intolerance and aggressively challenge organizations, ultimately building barriers when we should be building bridges. Shelters, just like animals, should be treated as individuals as each is unique in its community, mandate, and function. We should never be tolerant of animals dying needlessly, but only by working together can we learn from others’ strengths and conquer our weaknesses as individuals and as a movement, thereby making the change we all wish to see.

A piece of this puzzle is using a vocabulary that reflects and nurtures the bond between people and animals, that denotes a high level of responsibility, empathy, and respect for the animals with whom we share our planet, and that shows respect to others with these values working towards these goals. The incorporation of honest and compassionate terminology into our philosophies and our speech will develop effective relationships and combine efforts focused on creating and sustaining a compassionate society for all.

Scotlund Haisley

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10 responses to “Speaking Compassionately and Honestly”

  1. Debby says:

    I wrote earlier but will repeat that I think I am seeing more & more people changing the way that animals are treated, for the most part. I do know there are some horrific truths that are still happening to animals & I read three this past week alone. For the most part, I find animals to be better company 9 out of 10 times! I mush prefer calling myself “their person” rather than “my dog” etc… Thanks & I look fwd to the subscription!

  2. Lyla Diaz says:

    This is a very important message. Thanks for the wisdom imparted.

  3. Gail Madak says:

    Scotlund, you’ve made excellent points here. I’d like to add an example: We should say “the dog who was adopted …” rather than “the dog that was adopted…” Yes, labels are imprecise and polarizing. They so often convey judgments; like “kill” and “no kill,” the label “vegan” is fraught with controversy. I think you, Scotlund, have an innate ability to act with tolerance. It’s hard to live up to the ideals we set for ourselves, and to keep our judgments in tow. Much to ponder!

  4. Dian Hardy says:

    Wanted to add to your already excellent article the use of ‘guardian’ rather than ‘owner’ and ‘companion’ instead of ‘pet.’ Eventually, when the other animals are no longer viewed as property, when basic rights of personhood are achieved, much we struggle with now will change for the betterment of humans and the other animals.

  5. pamm burling says:

    when refereing to any animal we are part of a pack. we are FAMILY. Since it is my home first I am alfa female, if the animal happens to be male, the first male is alfa male. even if the cat came here first then the dog. We all have our rolls in the pack. We all look after one another.

  6. Dolores Christian says:

    Scotlund, I am so glad you wrote this. It has long been a point of contention for me, when discussing an animal, that people not use the terms “it” or “owner”. Further, the term euthanasia is, as you stated, a misleading term used to “clean up” the fact that we are killing millions of animals each year. Sanitizing something will not cure it…only hide it and prolong the suffering. Thank you Scotlund!! Thank you!!

  7. Alli Twohey says:

    Well spoken, well thought out and intelligently compassionate as always. I have a question for you, or anyone else who like to answer; I’ve always referred to mine as being my children, fur babies, babies, etc. So is this overboard? “)

  8. Thank you Scotlund, here are two more statements on the value and use of the term “Guardian.”

    “It’s not enough for us to keep saving adoptable animals sitting on death row in the overcrowded city and county shelters. we need to do something about the source of the problem – the abandonment and dumping off of dogs and cats like they are broken toasters or old couches. The word “owner” does not convey the warmth, love, and care that goes with having companion animals. However, when you use the term “guardian” your tone changes. “Guardian” conveys so much more. The implicit meaning covers responsibility, care, love, respect – all the things that come with having animal companions in our lives.” Cathy Nguyen

    “Animals are not resources or property with whom we can do as we please, their lives matter very much, and they should be firmly entrenched in our moral code community. Accepting the notion of ‘animal guardian’ replacing ‘pet owner’ will go a long way towards making the lives of our animal companions much better and richer.”
    Marc Bekoff, Professor Emeritus, University of Colorado

    Respectfully,

    Elliot M. Katz, DVM. Founder and President Emeritus
    In Defense of Animals

  9. JoAnna says:

    In reading your article I’m not sure if I missed something. I have given up using the term euthanasia some time ago. I was trying to understand what term one would use in place of “kill”. I always felt that the words we use do make a statement as in “kill” as opposed to “putting down” or euthanasia. So many people have no idea what goes on in shelters. I use the word shelter loosely as another term for animal control. So I my question is what word would be acceptable other than kill?

  10. […] A note on terminology: The word “euthanasia” originates from the Greek “euthanatos”, which translates to “good […]

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