Talking About Animals: The Vegan and the Foxhunter

There are surprises in the language used to talk about animals, and even similarities between a vegan and a foxhunter in how they use language. 

How people talk about animals, like this red fox in England
Photo: Graham Taylor (Shutterstock)

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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A vegan and a fox hunter have completely opposed views of animals. Yet analyzing how they talk shows some similarities, according to research by Guy Cook (King’s College, London). He studied interviews with a spokesperson for the Vegan Society and a spokesperson for the pro-foxhunting group The Countryside Alliance. 

Foxhunting has been illegal in the UK since 2005, and only a quarter of one per cent of the UK is vegan, so both groups can be considered outside the mainstream. 

Prof. Cook says, “These two interviews and their language provide evidence of two conflicting ideas of human animal interaction, which despite their differences provide a mirror image of each other, as it were flanking mainstream ideas and discourse.” 

“One evokes and seeks to preserve a vanishing kind of relationship, which, while intimate, was nevertheless unequivocal in its view of animals as different from humans in ways which make their killing for sport or meat morally unproblematic.  The other envisages a future moral order which supersedes that of the present, and seeks to accord animals the same moral and personal status as humans.”

Both people use ‘she’ and ‘he’ to refer to animals, rather than ‘it’. The difference is that for the vegan campaigner, it is the actual sex of the animal, whereas for the foxhunting campaigner, tradition dictates the pronouns regardless of the animal’s sex.

For Amanda Baker (Vegan Society), using these pronouns is part of speaking about animals as persons. For example, speaking about the dairy industry she says “If the calf is female she may very well, depending on who the father is, be raised to become a farmed cow for milk…” She uses human terms like son, daughter, sexism and slavery when referring to animals. 

Baker talks about how the language used might influence people’s perceptions and beliefs. She prefers the term ‘companion animal’ to ‘pet’. “One word that I started thinking about recently is ‘person’ and the concept of ‘personhood’,” she says. “We have five cats in our family who’ve been rescued from various situations and I very much relate to them as ‘individual people of the feline variety’ if you will.” Similarly she says, “a pig is a person not a meal.”

In contrast, for Tim Bonner (Countryside Alliance) the fox is always ‘he’ and a hare is always ‘she’, according to tradition. He says “’Him’ to the fox and ‘her’ the hare. Traditional. Always has been. The hare is ‘Puss’ and she’s a ‘she’ and the fox is ‘Charlie’ and he’s a ‘he’.” 

Bonner also uses language in a way that he hopes will influence people’s views, such as the way he uses words such as welfare and cruelty. Just like Baker, he is aware that his language choices are different from those of most people. He says, “a lot of people find it difficult to understand that in the same way they find it difficult to understand how you can love a fox and hunt it or have huge respect for deer and shoot them but you can and we do.” 

Both interviewees talk about emotion in relation to animals. For Baker, this is apparent in the way she talks about animals as persons, whereas for Bonner there is what Cook calls “the easily ridiculed hunter’s claim to love and respect the individual animals they kill” which nonetheless includes knowledge of the animal and its behaviour.

Most of the interviews refer only to a small subset of animals, something also found in a 2013 study of what animals mean to people by Alison Sealey and Nickie Charles. Prof. Cook says, “In this respect, the opposed views expressed in the two interviews analysed in this article are simultaneously very contemporary, reflecting a highly reduced view of animal life on earth, but also not contemporary enough, in that awareness of impending ecological collapse does not figure in their concerns.”

This research is part of a wider project called "‘People’, ‘Products’, ‘Pests’ and ‘Pets’: the discursive representation of animals." It includes interviews with people from various organizations including the RSPCA, Badger Trust, an organic abbatoir and wildlife presenters. The project aims to provide a deeper understanding of how people talk and write about animals. If you want to know more, you can follow them on twitter. 
When you are talking about animals, do you refer to them as ‘he’ and ‘she’ or ‘it’, and does it depend on whether you know the animal?

Cook, G. (2015). 'A pig is a person' or 'You can love a fox and hunt it': Innovation and tradition in the discursive representation of animals Discourse & Society, 26 (5), 587-607 

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