News Treehugger Voices Do Animals Deserve Personal Pronouns? "Animals are a who, not a what," animal advocates say. By Mary Jo DiLonardo Mary Jo DiLonardo LinkedIn Twitter Senior Writer University of Cincinnati Mary Jo DiLonardo has worked in print, online, and broadcast journalism for 25 years and covers nature, health, science, and animals. Learn about our editorial process Updated March 26, 2021 05:03PM EDT Fact checked by Haley Mast Fact checked by Haley Mast LinkedIn Harvard University Extension School Haley Mast is a freelance writer, fact-checker, and small organic farmer in the Columbia River Gorge. She enjoys gardening, reporting on environmental topics, and spending her time outside snowboarding or foraging. Topics of expertise and interest include agriculture, conservation, ecology, and climate science. Learn about our fact checking process Share Twitter Pinterest Email Jane Goodall was criticized early in her research for giving names to chimpanzees. Ian Waldie / Getty Images News Environment Business & Policy Science Animals Home & Design Current Events Treehugger Voices News Archive In the grand scheme of today’s problems, this seems like a minor one. But if renowned primatologist Jane Goodall is weighing in, then it’s worth a discussion. Animal rights activists, including Goodall, want writers — who take guidance from the Associated Press Stylebook — to stop referring to an animal as “it.” Here’s the AP’s entry on animals: Do not apply a personal pronoun to an animal unless its sex has been established or the animal has a name: The dog was scared; it barked. Rover was scared; he barked. The cat, which was scared, ran to its basket. Susie the cat, who was scared, ran to her basket. The bull tosses his horns. The AP Stylebook is used by writers and news outlets around the world for guidance on everything from grammar and punctuation to capitalization and numerals. Initially published in 1953, it’s updated regularly and is now in its 55th edition. It’s a bit of a grammar and style bible for those of us in journalism so that we’re all consistent when we write. I have to admit, this is one AP rule I’ve broken many times. If I write about an abandoned puppy found on the side of the road or tips to comfort your scared kitten, I avoid “it” at all costs. In some cases, it's a ping-pong back and forth between “him” and “her” or just an adept use of “your pet.” Note: This was before “they/them/their” was ever used as anything other than a plural pronoun. AP has since said these pronouns are “acceptable in limited cases as a singular and/or gender-neutral pronoun.” For people, that is. The groups In Defense of Animals and Animals & Media have joined forces to ask for an update to the animals’ entry in the stylebook. In Defense of Media is a global animal rights and rescue organization. Animals & Media is an online resource offering style best practices for professionals writing about animals and their issues. They’re joined by more than 80 global animal advocacy and conservation leaders and scholars including Goodall in an open letter to the AP Stylebook. They've said, "animals are a who, not a what." They’re suggesting that the guidance should be to use she/her/hers and he/him/his when an animal’s sex is known, and the gender-neutral they, or he/she, or his/hers when sex is unknown. “By avoiding the inaccurate use of the word it, this update would reflect the fact that nonhuman animals are sentient beings, and encourage dialogue about how to respect and protect them and their rights and interests, and to shape a more equitable world,” said Debra Merskin, journalism and communication professor at the University of Oregon and co-author of Animals & Media. Changing Perception “Animals are a part of some of the most important stories being told right now, but they’re not always given a voice. Even with how much we’ve learned about how intelligent, social, complex and unique as individuals they are, and how important they are, they’re often described as if they are merely objects whose lives and interests don’t merit further consideration on our part,” Alicia Graef, of In Defense of Animals, tells Treehugger. “It isn’t just inaccurate, it perpetuates a bias that makes it easy to continue to objectify, exploit and dismiss them. We're at a time when it’s more important than ever to challenge the status quo when it comes to how we treat animals, and making this update to represent them as fellow sentient beings would be a great and much-needed step toward changing people’s perception.” In her statement, Goodall points out that when she started her research, she was told that her findings and approaches, including giving names to chimpanzees, were wrong. She was told that the belief they are individuals and that they have emotions was also incorrect. “We know that they feel joy, pain, grieve, and demonstrate compassion and altruism. We are not separate in kind from other species, but rather by mere degree. I've spent my life working to grow respect for nonhuman animals, and to ensure a future for the complex tapestry of life on Earth, but as we face devastating losses and cruelty to individuals and species, we must do everything we can to help people recognize the sentience and innate value of other animals,” she says. “I've often said that to make change you must reach the heart, and to reach the heart you must tell stories. The way we write about other animals shapes the way we see them — we must recognize that every individual nonhuman animal is a 'who,' not a 'what.' I hope that we can advance our standards in this regard globally to refer to animals as individuals, and no longer refer to them as objects, so that the stories we tell spark compassion and action for these fellow beings.” View Article Sources "APStylebook.com User Guide." AP. "JOINT OPEN LETTER TO THE ASSOCIATED PRESS CALLING FOR A CHANGE IN ANIMAL PRONOUNS — ANIMALS ARE A WHO, NOT A WHAT." In Defense of Animals, 2021.