Words for Animals, Words for People

When people and animals collide in unfavourable odds for humans, the language used in reporting these interactions is decidedly biased on the human side of the argument.

Who can forget that famous placard at the WA Anti-Cull Protests held up by two men which read “Sharks Kill Innocent People”? I still cannot understand what this sign is trying to express or indeed what it means. How do these men know of the innocence of the people unfortunate enough to be fatally wounded in a shark bite incident and more importantly, what do these men claim these people are innocent of? Breaking and entering, impure thoughts, infidelity?

This is not the first time the word innocent has been used on the human side of an animal / human altercation. It creeps into the rhetoric again and again. Just tonight, a piece aired on Seven News of a crocodile handler whose hand was seized while feeding a crocodile at a South Coast Zoo. The couple who filmed the event even claimed that they watched “a man, an innocent man, get dragged to his execution, fair dinkum. ” Again, what does this mean? Clearly there is some sort of perverted sense of justice being applied to human / animal interactions where humans are automatically considered innocent in opposition to animals which seem to be deemed the opposite, guilty.

Here are just some comments I found on a site after a Google Advanced Search with the exact phrase “Sharks kill innocent people” :

Sharks can fight back at least and that is why humans hate them more.
CyberDeath11826-30, MAug 9, 2013

Why do sharks kill innocent people even when unprovoked?
tdmpel22-25Aug 9, 2013

Personally I believe a lot of people live in the “Eliminate the threat” kind of lifestyle, I don’t think these creatures deserve to be killed in their own territory. A man has the rights to “Castle Doctrine” and kill a dangerous intruder in their house, I feel its the same with Sharks, its their territory, they see us as an intruder or food but we see cows as food so no one really has the right to claim “But they’re dangerous!” because cows don’t have a say.
YvonneG9318-21Aug 9, 20131

I want them extinct except the kinds that never get over four feet long and basking sharks, and I am confident we would be fine without them.

The site is:
http://www.experienceproject.com/question-answer/Why-Would-Someone-Want-To-Kill-A-Poor-Innocent-Shark-:)/2267861 TahatchTruthteller36-40, MAug 9, 2013

There is an interesting range of comments here but again, the language is the human construct of a sense of justice – either for or against.
I do find Yvonne’s comments both insightful and interesting, not just because on the surface I agree with her sentiments, but because she brings up the idea of defence in terms of territory and she also brings up the idea of an animal’s ability to defend itself and it’s agency as being dangerous or not.
We humans are failing to acknowledge that wild animals, and indeed all animals, have the ability to defend themselves and their territory. Even my domesticated cat Rufus has inflicted serious harm on me and others in his four-year lifetime including a tetanus shot for an unfortunate cat-sitter. I do not begrudge my cat or any animal for that matter in exercising their right to defend themselves or their territory if they feel threatened. They have evolved with physical attributes which enable them to do this and our existence and sharing of space with them does not diminish that fact.
The language we use to describe these interactions has to be investigated much more closely. Language is the basis of human communication; it is a vessel for emotion and action and it is being used in a manipulative way when dealing with animals.
Even the word cull, which is commonly used for the mass slaughter of animals in Australia including kangaroos, flying foxes, Indian mynahs and now sharks, is a very misleading word.

Cull is a very gentle sounding word. The Oxford Dictionary definitions are as follows: 1. select, choose or gather from a large quantity or amount (knowledge culled from books) 2. pick or gather (flowers, fruit, etc…) 3. Select (animals) according to quality. Esp. poor surplus specimens for killing.

Even this definition only brings in the truth of the act in the third definition and even then, the WA government’s act must surely be in violation of law as sharks are not in surplus as CITES and many other organisations have attested, they are in fact in shortage in many areas worldwide.

By scrubbing the blood off words such as cull, legislation is able to pass, as these gentle words do not trigger emotional responses in people. If a more accurate and less palatable word such as slaughter were used perhaps the situation would not have gone as far as it has.
It is time to look closely at our language and use of it when dealing with animals and people. People are not innocent in this debate and animals are not guilty.

One thought on “Words for Animals, Words for People

  1. What a great image – scrubbing the blood off words! The whole innocence/guilt thing is so disturbing and interesting! Almost like it makes the shark out to be some (flawed) agent delivering justice – do bears/lions/puma etc get spoken of the same way?

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