Is the word ‘pet’ an insult?

Oxford Theology Faculty Fellow Dr Andrew Linzey has caused a stir this week with his claim that the label ‘pet’ is derogatory, favouring the term ‘companion animals’.

The comments appeared in the first issue of new academic publication The Journal of Animal Ethics, of which Dr Linzey, a long-term animal rights activist, is co-editor. Along with the term ‘pet’ Linzey would also see ‘wild’ replaced with ‘free-living’ and ‘owner’ with ‘human-carer’.

Dr Linzey said: “We do need to examine our language about animals because a lot of it is derogatory in the sense that it belittles them and our relations with them.”

But Tom Holder, a member of Pro-Test, an Oxford-based group that campaigns for the continuation of animal testing, said: “To change [pets’] names to ‘companion animals’ would be to misunderstand the one-way responsibility we have for our pets.

“Andrew Linzey’s push for animal rights poses a threat to the future of medical research – and through that the health of humans and animals alike…Animals do not have rights. Rights entail duties; animals lack the cognitive facilities to participate in any such moral agreement.” He did applaud Linzey for “making his argument in a calm and rational manner”.

Christ Church theology Dr John Perry supported Dr Linzey. He said: “When I tell my children not to use ethnic slurs, I don’t say: ‘But go ahead as long as there are no minorities around to hear you.’ I tell them never to use such language, because language affects hearer and speaker alike. Dr Linzey’s basic point is exactly right: part of becoming the kind of person who can contribute to the well-being of the whole of creation is careful attention to the language we use.”

But conservative philosopher Roger Scruton said: “Equality between humans and other animals is impossible. Are we going to try animals for murder? For example, people have the wrong image of cats, and our fondness for them (contained in the word ‘pets’) is a major ecological disaster, since they are, objectively speaking, pests.”

A spokesperson for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) responded: “’Pets’ and ‘pests’ are two sides of the same coin: both define animals only in relation to human preferences and prejudices.”

Dr Linzey spoke out against the “acres” of web articles that “misrepresented what we were saying”. He explained: “We did not say that calling companion animals “pets” is “insulting” to them, as some have reported. Obviously, animals cannot be insulted in that way.”