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The Importance Of Language Choices At Your Animal Sanctuary

A pile of individual letters used to make sign boards.

Updated April 8, 2022

Whether your animal sanctuary prides itself in its extensive public visitation programs or your organization operates entirely outside of the public spotlight, intentional language choice is one of the best tools your sanctuary has to advocate for your residents and others like them. Language use has been found to alter our perceptions of the world, both in terms of how we construct our value systems and how we conceptualize solutions to challenges that we face as a society. At a farmed animal sanctuary, in particular, this provides a relatively simple but powerful opportunity to help reframe the way people consider your residents and the billions of farmed animals around the world.

Words Matter

Generally, the language surrounding animal agriculture has been constructed in a way that separates species that are farmed from other domesticated species. For instance, a human eats food, and a typical “companion animal” like a dog or cat also eats food. However, the generally used term for chicken or cow or pig food is feed. There is no purpose for this change in verbiage other than to separate and “otherize” a human’s perception of these species. As their lives are devalued to a purely economic consideration, it has been generally accepted by most that they do not deserve the same language of humans and their companions.

Although we cannot flip a switch to rewire the lexicon of modern society, we do have the power to help people better understand our residents and how we see them by making more inclusive and compassionate language choices. This does not have to be accomplished aggressively or with grand pronouncements; simply creating and gently enforcing an internal policy of preferred language choices for staff, volunteers, and communications can subtly reshape perceptions. This could be implemented as an organizational core values document that includes an overview of your philosophy of language use, or as a list of commonly used phrases and how they could be modified to give greater consideration to your residents. As an example, check out The Open Sanctuary Project’s language policy here.

Here are some language changes that could be encouraged at a farmed animal sanctuary:

Instead OfConsider UsingExplanation
Your AnimalsYour Residents or Sanctuary AnimalsThey live at your sanctuary; creates a baseline of respect for their autonomy
Farm AnimalsFarmed AnimalsFarming has been “done” to these species, it is not an inherent quality of them
DomesticDomesticatedLike farming, domestication was a process “done” to these animals, not an inherent quality.
FishFishesHelps underscore that each fish should be considered as an individual.
AnimalsNon-Human Animals or Non-Human PeopleReframes implied dominion
The pronoun “it” in reference to a residentHe, She, They“It” is a depersonalizing pronoun in most cases
FeedFoodFeed is an  “otherizing” term
GestationPregnancyGestation is an “otherizing” term
PetCompanionReframes implied dominion
“Owner” or “Master”“Guardian” or “Caregiver”Reframes implied dominion
“Dairy” CowsCows used by the dairy industry or for their milkHow animals are used by people should not define them
“Meat” or “Broiler” chickensChickens used for their flesh or Large Breed Chickens”How animals are used by people should not define them
“Layer” HensChickens used for their eggsHow animals are used by people should not define them
“Bachelor flock”Rooster flock“Bachelor” reduces roosters to human stereotypes

Meat, specific “types” of meat

Flesh, flesh of a cow, pig, etc.These terms are often used to obfuscate their origin
“Aggressive” AnimalsTry to describe their behaviors without assigning a value to the animal“Aggressive” implies an animal is acting intentionally maliciously, or aggression is in their inherent nature. Learn more here!

It may seem excessive to consider some of these language changes if you haven’t been exposed to them before, but giving greater consideration to animals has the power to make people see farmed animals in a different light. Perhaps a visitor has never considered or been exposed to the idea of a chicken as an individual with their own preferences, or a cow living on their own terms. Language reframing can help plant the seeds to help people consider the impact of their choices in their day to day lives.

Even if your sanctuary operates on an internal personnel-only basis, maintaining intentional language can help reinforce your values and standards with all staff members and help keep a level of respect between staff and your sanctuary’s residents. Without this persistent culture of respect, it can unfortunately be easy to lose focus of the role of a sanctuary and how it serves its vulnerable population.

Countering “Humanewashing”

Language choice has been manipulated by the animal agriculture industry with great success. Marketers have created extensive campaigns to modify the vocabulary associated with the animal agriculture industry in order to influence the perception of consumers who would like to believe they are doing right by farmed animals. To combat this issue, your sanctuary can provide a resource for visitors that explains the black and white regulatory realities behind “humane” animal agriculture labels such as “cage-free”, “organic”, “free-range”, “grass-fed”, and “local”. These terms have been engineered to imply a higher standard of animal comfort and well-being that does not necessarily reflect the experience of the animals treated under those labels, but most consumers are unaware of these realities. Check out Farm Sanctuary’s resource about this subject here.

It’s A Process

Even with a language policy in place, it’s not going to take long for someone to use a phrase that they’re used to associating with farmed animals, be it a well-meaning visitor, volunteer, or even a veteran staff member! When a less compassionate term is used, especially by a visitor, gently offer an alternative phrase and a non-judgmental explanation. Intentional consideration for animals is typically foreign to most people socialized in a world that devalues animal lives, and it’s unlikely the speaker meant any harm. Most people (especially those choosing to visit a farmed animal sanctuary) are open to hearing compassionate explanations for why a sanctuary chooses different terminology. Conversely, most people become more defensive about their beliefs and dismissive to suggestions if they feel shamed or criticized. Visitors are potential allies to your mission, so it’s important to make them feel welcome and curious rather than alienated. We’re all working towards more compassionate treatment of animals, and it’s important to be compassionate to other humans when possible.

This Goes For You Too!

Yes, you! It can take time to re-establish a mental dictionary after years of using certain phrases, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you mess up on occasion!

Think Carefully About How You Talk About Humans As Well

While you are implementing a language policy at your sanctuary for the animals, it’s also important to implement a respectful language policy for humans as well. You should codify acceptable and inclusive language to make human staff, volunteers, and visitors all feel comfortable at your sanctuary. Let people from all different backgrounds, races, cultures, genders, sexual orientations, regardless of economic, health, and social status, know that they are respected and welcome at your sanctuary and in all of your communications.

When A Sanctuary Talks About Other Social Movements

Although it may seem benign to some, we strongly recommend that any animal-focused organization not utilize language that co-opts or counters that of other social movements. For instance, some sanctuaries have in the past utilized the phrase “All lives matter” in communications. This phrase, while it may sound sensible at first, has significant negative implications and should not be used.

If your organization wishes to build coalitions and promote social initiatives outside of animal-focused work, your show of support is more likely going to be better received by amplifying the messages of other organizations and organizers who primarily focus on that work without promoting other causes. Unintentionally co-opting language to redirect a message to suit your goals, as well-intentioned as these goals may be, will likely be received as callous or possibly in opposition to the aims of the original movement.


Words Matter | Animal Sheltering

Can Language Influence Our Perception Of Reality? | Slate

Consistent Anti-Oppression

Farm Fresh? Natural? Eggs Not Always What They’re Cracked Up To Be | NPR

Updated on April 8, 2022

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