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  • [BREAKFAST WITH THE MUSE] Why Animals Matter to Writers--and What We Can Do for Them
[BREAKFAST WITH THE MUSE] Why Animals Matter to Writers--and What We Can Do for Them
Written by
Jill Jepson
July 2015
Written by
Jill Jepson
July 2015

The world is waking up to animals. As people become aware of the horrors of factory farms, puppy mills, zoos, circuses, and various forms of racing, concern for animal welfare is growing. As cruel as human begins are to animals, I still have faith that most of us care about the beings with whom we share the Earth.  

As writers, we have a special obligation. We must be aware of animal suffering in the way that we must be aware of human suffering. It comes with the job.

Why do animals matter to writers? For many reasons.

Because they are aware.  

Animals have feelings. They experience pain and pleasure. They form bonds with others. They remember. If you ignore animals, you blind yourself to an entire world of thinking, feeling beings. As a writer, do you really want to wear those blinders?

Because writers have an obligation not to ignore suffering.  

Writers are society’s record keepers, its witnesses, its whistle-blowers. We’re the ones who have to keep a lookout for evil and injustice, and bring it to the world’s attention.   

Because animal abuse comes from the same source as the abuse of humans.

Animal advocates are often accused of focusing on a trivial issue at the expense of more important ones. But at the root of all injustices lies the same willingness to promote ourselves at the expense of others. To accept the abuse of those who are unable to defend themselves. To be complacent in the face of wrongdoing. Justice for animals doesn’t take away from justice for humans. The two are one and the same.

As a writer, what can you do to promote the welfare of animals? You don’t have to start writing op-ed pieces about factory farms. You can be an advocate for animals simply in your choice of words. 

1. Don’t call animals “it. Use “she” or “he.” Animals are not objects.

2. Never refer to an animal as a product or by the way it will be butchered and cooked.

When you read these sentences, think about what they are really saying: 

“Taylor owns a hundred head of beef." 

“Are those chickens fryers or broilers?”

Question: “What kind of calves are those?” Answer: “Veal.”

When you write about a living, feeling being, do you really want to call her a “broiler” or him “veal”?

3. Refer to animal products by what they are

That “leather” handbag is made of skin. That “pork roast” is the body of a pig. Not long ago, that “steak” was breathing and feeling. It might make us feel better to pretend our shoes weren’t fashioned from skin peeled off a cow, but it’s not honest—and honesty is what writing is all about.

4. Avoid idioms that refer to animal suffering. It’s astonishing how many of these we have in English:         

"The straw that broke the camel’s back."

"Beating a dead horse."

"Killing two birds with one stone."

"Sick as a dog."

"There’s more than one way to skin a cat."

We’ve gotten so used to these phrases, we don’t even realize what we’re saying.

5. Don’t use mass nouns for animals.

Water, sand, rice, glue, air: These are all mass nouns. They refer to things that are seen as masses, rather than single objects. You don’t say, “There are a lot of sands in my shoe,” Or “The airs are smoggy this morning.”

Some animals are often spoken of similarly.  

“The forest is full of deer.”

“They’re off hunting bear.”

“Cattle are a major industry here.”

When we use deer, bear, and cattle, those animals become collections of indistinguishable objects. They’re not: They are individuals.  

6. Avoid using animals as references to negative qualities in people.

Chickens aren’t cowardly.

Pigs aren’t selfish or dirty (and, for that matter, they don’t even have the ability to sweat, so you can’t really “sweat like a pig.”).

Rats don’t “rat” on others.

7. Eliminate the many animal names we use for women.

Ever notice this? Chick, biddy, bitch, cow, dog, hen, fox. When you use these, you’re objectifying women and animals in one stroke!

So, am I saying that all you have to do is change a few common phrases in your writing and you can have a real impact on animals? That just changing the way you talk and write can change the world?

Yes, in fact. That’s what I’m saying. Words are powerful. They mold the way we think. They change attitudes. Over time, they can change the world.


Try this: Write about why animals matter to you. What have they given you? What debt do you owe them? How can you change your writing to make yourself and others more aware of animals?

Jill Jepson is the author of Writing as a Sacred Path. Read new installments of Missed, her fantasy novella for kids, each week on Fantasy CrossingGet her free weekly strategies for writers here.


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  • Marybeth Holleman

    Thank you for this Jill.

  • Jill Jepson

    So have I!

  • Alonna Shaw Writing

    Jill and all, I've enjoyed this conversation so much!

  • Jill Jepson

    Thanks all of you for such an important, loving discussion!

  • Lisa Nanette Allender

    I recently discussed Autism with a neighbor whose younger son is "a person with Autism-Spectrum Disorder", and not "her autistic son".
    There's a HUGE difference in putting the human being First, the condition, Second. ❤️

  • Lisa Nanette Allender

    Jill, Alonna, Cate,
    Thank you for all this kind introspection.
    Indeed, in regards to our companion animals (I have not called my GSDs "pets", ever), it is true we must be "guardians" or "their humans", or their "furever family". Not masters, or owners, as that makes these sweet beings, slaves.
    A kind metaphor:
    "Feeding two birds with one crust"

  • Lisa Nanette Allender

    Alonna-- Thank you for that recognition. I love using "the Latin" for animals, because since most of us will not immediately understand who we are "labeling", it frees us up to HEAR what is said.

  • Jill Jepson

    I am so glad you posted this, Cate. It is an often overlooked topic, and it is absolutely on-point because the real issue here is using language mindfully and compassionately. I teach a course titled Language as Power, in which we address how language intersects with many issues including race, gender, poverty, the environment, animal rights, and disability. Although we discuss disability in general, I have never specifically covered mental illness in my course, but I'm now realizing that is an oversight, especially because people who are sensitive about other disabilities are (as you point out so eloquently) utterly insensitive where it comes to mental illness. When I teach the course again this spring, I will include material on this important and frequently ignored topic. So thank you.

  • Jill Jepson

    Thank you for your comment, Alonna. Even after years of writing and teaching this, I still have to stop myself from using some of these idioms. I've finally learned to say, "feed two birds with one berry," which I made up to replace the well-worn phrase I often used. It's odd because we say these things for years without thinking much about it. It isn't until someone points it out that we realize what we're actually saying. 

  • Alonna Shaw Writing

    Jill, I've noticed myself using an idiom mentioned above (straw that broke...). I cringe when I do and remind myself of your post. Your words have stayed with me.

  • Jill Jepson

    I have been enjoying this exchange about animals. How important they are to us!

  • Alonna Shaw Writing

    Cate, thanks for sharing your cat allergy situation. So sorry to hear about the loss of your lovely white cat.

    I'm sorry to hear you have an allergy challenge too. But you've made me feel less alone in my challenges. Hey, this is kind of like your experience. A friend had pets her entire life. When her most recent passed and she moved to a no-pets-allowed building. Her lifelong psoriasis had been misdiagnosed because she found it was actually allergic eczema to the allergenic pet proteins. Her skin cleared up in her new pet-free home. She can't resist petting other peoples pets though!

  • Alonna Shaw Writing

    Cate, I loved your morning walk story. I've always been an animal person (more than humans) and see and feel animals in a way similar to yours. Unfortunately, even after eight years of allergy shots, I'm very allergic to dogs, cats, birds, etc. I need animals to keep their distance and pet owners not to take them into businesses. In nature distance is best since I don't want to disrupt wild things. I used to watch The Dog Whisperer to get my animal behavior fix. I'm pretty sure I absorbed "guardianship instead of ownership" from Cesar Millan. I preferred his TV show to others because it focused on psychology/behavior not tricks. I think there's a level of dignity for the pet that comes with guardianship vs. ownership.

    Sadly, there are big health drawbacks with pet/animal interactions for me (asthma, skin, etc). No such thing as an allergy-free dog/cat unless it's a robot. I knew a cat once who didn't like to be picked up. We spent loads of time together--outside. We had our own language of sorts. I've been heartbroken since moving away from her.

  • Alonna Shaw Writing

    Lisa, terrific idea to use Latin for the poem's title.

  • Alonna Shaw Writing

    Jill, absolutely I'll be mindful in terminology! The word choice can reflect character and subtext. On a personal level, I wish there was a way to value animal life more... To increase quality of life and rethink ownership as guardianship.

  • Jill Jepson

    What an excellent example, Lisa! Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this and how you applied it to your poetry!

  • Lisa Nanette Allender

    Hi Jill
    I think poets will connect with this very easily. We try to always avoid the cliche', so certainly using this kind of terminology you've listed would be using old terms, instead of creating a fresh way of looking at life through an animal's eyes.
    I submitted a poem entitled "Sus Scrofa", which is written about an animal who is separated from his mother,and longs to feel sunshine. The poem details how the animal is death with by humans.
    Whenever I read this poem, people come up to me afterwards, and ask "You were taking about veal, right? I never eat that."
    Actually, I chose this title (Latin/Scientific name for this animal) because I knew if I titled it with the Anglo-Saxon word for this animal, all kinds of preconceived notions would fill the person about to read the poem, and those connotations are all negative. That's why it's Not titled "Pigs".
    The poem was published shortly after I submitted it, at Dead Mule Lit Mag.

  • Jill Jepson

    I'm glad to hear of your interest in animal welfare, Alonna. I, personally, avoid the term "livestock," but of course everyone has to find their own way of thinking about animals and using language to reflect it. 

  • Alonna Shaw Writing

    Thanks for your post. Animal welfare is a topic in my current writing effort. I'll have to be strategic in how I refer to livestock, pets, etc.

  • Jill Jepson

    Well said, Susan.

  • Susan McDonlad

    Animal welfare is enlightened self interest.

  • Jill Jepson

    I will definitely check her work out. Thanks again, Cate!

  • Jill Jepson

    Thank you, thank you Cate! You write so eloquently here about these issues. I was not aware of Adria Vasil's work, but it has now moved to the top of my reading list.