We see it all the time. Animals referred to as “its”. Even animals that we love. Even when we are describing some incredibly complex behavior. For some reason, we talk about them like they are pencils. Animals though — including us humans — aren’t mere objects. This is something that we have understood for thousands of years. It doesn’t even require any special sort of intelligence to recognize that animals aren’t just objects — it seems to be within the intellectual grasp of pretty much any animal that has a brain. And so it should, because being able to tell the difference between an inanimate object and a conscious, thinking thing can mean the difference between life and death for both predators and prey.
So if it’s so obvious that animals aren’t just things, why do we insist on talking about them as if they were? In English, the pronoun ‘it’ is used exclusively to stand in place of some inanimate object. It’s not for poverty of language, though, since in English we have not one, not two, but three other pronouns that we could just as easily use. Why is it, for example, that we would describe as an “it” a mother dog, feeding her puppies? We would be horrified if a human woman were referred to that way. But why should we feel at all uncomfortable with describing a mother dachshund as a she, as a her? She is, after all, just as much a female being as any human woman. She’s a mother, after all!
Of course, there are many times when we want to use a pronoun to refer to an indistinct individual, where the gender is unknown. For a long while, it was fashionable in English to default to male pronouns when referring to an ambiguous person of unknown gender, which is why if you read old textbooks, for example, they are full of “he”s and “him”s without very many “her”s (except, of course, if they are explicitly referring to a womanly activity like motherhood or secretarial work). Now, this dated and sexist trend has more or less been laid to rest, and rightfully so. Because in English it is actually completely acceptable grammatically to use the pronoun “they”. They can, of course, refer to multiple individuals. But it can just as well apply to a singular individual of unknown gender or whenever one doesn’t wish to express gender. This isn’t some new age reworking of the language, this is actually just the way the language works.
So there is no real reason ever to refer to any animal, whether they are a human, a bat, or catfish, as an it. Its cannot think. Its do not feel. And that is actually the root of the reason why we so often use these terms incorrectly. For a long time, urban Western culture has not wanted to see non-human animals as the thinking, feeling creatures which they so obviously are. Who knows why. The real explanation is probably extremely complex. But two factors seem to at least have played an enormous role in this objectification of animals and of nature.
For one, urbanized European populations have been out of touch with the natural world for a long time. Cultures which exist in proximity to wilderness and to wildlife seem not to think of all the other animals as being mere objects. But the only relationship we have had with animals for a long time has been an exploitative one: animals that we breed and keep for the express purpose of extracting their meat or their labor, and animals we keep in zoos. And this is the other big factor in our objectification of animals: it’s easier to abuse, exploit and mistreat other beings if you can convince yourself that they are mere things. We see this in conflicts between groups of people, and we see it in the way we think of animals.
There is absolutely nothing scientifically which separates us as subjects from all other animals as objects. That is only a reflection of our own ego. Equally, there is nothing grammatically which requires us to refer to other creatures as if they were objects. If anything, it is grammatically incorrect to do so. And yet we do it all the time.
Language matters. It influences the way we think about ourselves, the world, and others. The more we are able to recognize as a culture the personhood of animals, the more successful we will be in establishing and protecting animal rights.