Aug 21, 2023

Animals Are He’s and She’s, Not It’s

—Unless they identify as shareholders or RVs, that is

By Ed Goldman

Have you noticed that in more-or-less formal English, an animal isn’t referred to as a “she” or “he” but rather as an “it”? 

This doesn’t seem fair, even in a world suffering from what I’ve dubbed TNBI (temporary non-binary insanity). Why should a dog or cat or gecko or dwarf hamster be denied his or her persona just because they’re not, uh, personae?

Edgy Cartoon
Blue collie worker

I would never have referred to Portia and Camellia, the two dogs who blessed my life—not “that blessed my life”—as impersonal objects, like cupholders or bicycle shorts or catalytic converters. 

As for Osborn the Magnificent, the 19-year-old tabby who was my roomie until he passed—well, just note that in the preceding clause I used the pronouns “who” and “he” to reference him. I also used the euphemism “passed,” which I immediately regret. Beloved people and animals don’t “pass.” They die. Gravy, the State Bar and flatulence are things we pass.

In traveling down the HOV lane of life, there are people we all encounter whom we consider to be detritus, rubbish and recidivist elected officials (the ones who term out and the next day run for other seats for which they’re not qualified)—yet our language still gives them living-entity status. No influencer is called a VIT (very important thingie) and no compendium of their alleged accomplishments is called “Who’s What.” So why do we say, when a German shepherd was pulled to safety from a ditch—a recent occurrence that made national “awww” news and inspired this rant—that “it” was rescued?  

Now, had the German shepherd in question been an actual Teutonic sheep drover, surely he or she would have been accorded a human pronoun. But since he was a dog—without a union card, trade association membership or Rotary Club International pin affixed to his flea collar—he was transmogrified into an “it.”

If objectifying animals so coldly is our practice, why do we even bother to determine the sex of one if the moment after we do so we’re going to ignore it?

Even if you have your pet “fixed”—a weird word that implies there was something wrong when the pet still had functioning reproductive organs—Sally the Spaniel won’t stop being a female. Nor will Ralph the Rottweiler morph into an automaton. If that were the case, women who undergo hysterectomies and men who endure vasectomies would no longer be permitted to buy the current issue of Architectural Digest or Popular Mechanics (you’ll need to decide for yourself which one would buy which magazine. I can’t handle identity politics. I’m just one whatever).

This is why the aforementioned TNBI (temporary non-binary insanity) strikes me as being well-intentioned (perhaps) but ultimately silly (not perhaps). A newborn human, in most cases, is a girl or a boy, a she or a he. No obstetrician ever pulled out a baby and proclaimed, “Congratulations! It’s a they!”

And what dog owner will ever lavish praise by rhetorically asking—instead of “Who’s a good boy?”—”What’s a good item?” 

I close with some wisdom from James Thurber. “The dog has seldom been successful in pulling man up to its level of sagacity, but man has frequently dragged the dog down to his,” the great humorist and cartoonist once said. 

Actually, I imagine he might have said it more than once—especially if the first time it was at home while someone was running the garbage disposal or in a pizza joint when there was a kids soccer team at the next table celebrating. They weren’t necessarily celebrating a game victory. More likely, they were celebrating that they’d convinced someone’s mom or dad to take them to the pizza joint. Kids can be such clever little animals.

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Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).