How We Talk About Animals

Early yesterday morning in Toronto, a tractor trailer carrying 240 pigs rolled over on a major highway. As the truck tipped, pigs were thrown onto the road and crushed inside their trailer. In all, 81 animals died in the accident. Seven had to be euthanized at the scene. Here's a video of police and firemen attempting to corral the surviving animals. The pigs were on their way to slaughter, and therefore this story could easily become a rant about the horrors of factory farming and industrial meat production. But there is something else worth considering here, something a little more nuanced than an activist on a soapbox. It has to do with how we talk about animals.

As one reporter put it, the pigs who died in the accident simply "died sooner than expected." The police officer interviewed by the Canadian Press referred to the animals as "swine," and went on to say that alternate transportation would be found for the surviving animals so they could be delivered to "their ultimate destination." Listening closely to this coverage, I soon began to feel a certain distance opening up between me, the viewer, and those poor pigs. But how could this be, when the video footage itself was so visceral, and made me feel terrible for the animals?

The answer lies in the way people speak and write about these pigs. A strange sort of censorship, or sugarcoating, creeps into their language. I know exactly what a pig is, but a "swine?" A swine is somewhat foreign to me. And I know that the pigs who died did so tragically, but the tragedy seems a little less worrying because, as the reporter points out, the pigs just died "sooner than expected." And I can imagine what a slaughterhouse looks like, but those mental images become far less visceral when the slaughterhouse is not called a slaughterhouse, but simply the"ultimate destination" for those pigs.

The human/animal relationship is continually being redefined. This has never been more true than now, in 2010, as scientists, politicians, artists and citizens alike increasingly grapple with what it means to be a member of the animal kingdom. The trouble is, in order to redefine something, we need to find the right words to do so.

This can be a real challenge, because the words we subconsciously choose to describe animals and their situations are often the same words that distance us, intellectually and emotionally, from the very same animals. For example, a swine is not a pig. It is something less than a pig. (And while we're at it, "pork" isn't really pig, either, now is it?)

In the above video, firemen can be seen holding up a large tarp in front of the camera. They are trying to prevent grisly images of dead or dying pigs from being broadcast on national television. Clearly, those firemen knew a simple truth - that it is impossible to censor an image in the same way we sugarcoat our words.