He, She or It? The Challenges of Writing About Animals

Male jumping spider

Dear Readers, I have been writing this blog since 2014 (on a daily basis since lockdown in 2020) and I feel as if I still haven’t cracked two related stylistic problems when I write about animals.

First up, how do we describe the sex of an animal when we don’t know whether it’s male or female? I remember when I was a young woman I had a huge poster of a blue whale on my wall.

“Isn’t she beautiful?” I enthused to a friend.

“How do you know it’s female?” my friend asked.

“How do you know it’s not?” I replied. And herein is the problem.

We have a tendency, probably enshrined in the way that English has developed, to regard all animals as male unless they are definitely known to be female, and to me this doesn’t feel right. After all, in most species there’s a roughly 50:50 split. Take the case of Community Vole, for example. It’s hard to sex little rodents at the best of times, and so I ended up with my usual workaround – the vole was described as s/he or they according to the context.

I do appreciate that I am not consistent on this (I keep trying things out to see what seems the least clunky/the most elegant), but it does address this particular problem, for me at least. Because it matters to me that we at least acknowledge that the animal that we’re looking at has an equal chance of being female or male.

Sometimes, of course, it’s clear that an animal is male (as in the jumping spider above – the pedipalps (little boxing gloves) at the front are only possessed by males) or female (the fox in the photo below showed herself to be a vixen when she squatted to pee, rather than lifting her leg as a male would).

But Bug Woman, I hear you say, surely the easy answer is to call animals ‘it’, in the time-honoured tradition? Well, this is my second stylistic problem, because to call something ‘it’ denies it all individuality and personhood, and designates it as an object. I am sure many of us remember ‘Silence of the Lambs’, and the particularly creepy bit where the serial killer is trying to persuade his captive victim to put some skin lotion on, for reasons too dreadful to contemplate here.

“It puts the lotion on its skin” he intones.

Once something is an ‘it’, you can do whatever you like to it, and there is far too much ‘it-ing’ going on in the world.

And yes, I have sometimes used ‘it’ in my pieces when I’m in a rush and have no idea how to work around whatever problem has been thrown up by the story I’m trying to tell. But it always feels lazy to me. My cat is not an ‘it’. The birds in my garden are not ‘it’. Even the spider on the web in my living room window, being buffeted by the wind as I write this, is not an ‘it’ (in fact I’m 99% sure that she’s a she).

And so here I am, trying to be respectful and tying myself in knots, but I do think there is a serious point here. In various places in the world, rivers, mountains and other natural features are being considered for the status of legal personhood, as a way of protecting them, because persons have certain inalienable rights. It feels more important than ever that we celebrate the uniqueness and individuality of an animal and that we recognise that it, too, has personality and a way of being in the world. Because as the story of Community Vole showed us, it’s easier for people to care about one animal than about animals in general, just as the story of one homeless person or one refugee can make us feel an empathy that statistics and generalisations never can.

Let me know what you think, Readers! Do all these convolutions get in the way of enjoying the blog, or do they make the blog feel more thoughtful and inclusive?


15 thoughts on “He, She or It? The Challenges of Writing About Animals

  1. sllgatsby

    Today’s young people (or at least the ones I know, who are friends of my son), are quite comfortable using “they” when they don’t know a person’s pronouns. There is certainly precedent in English for using the singular “they,” and I think it will become more and more common. To our older ears, I think it can sound a little clunky, but I do think it is the way forward, whether with people or other creatures. 

    1. sllgatsby

      An example of common usage of singular they might be, “Oops, a customer just left *their* umbrella! Can you run after *them*? *They* won’t notice it’s gone until it rains again.” 

      1. Bug Woman Post author

        Indeed, ‘they’ is often an elegant way of describing what’s going on when the sex isn’t clear. It makes me wonder about how other languages deal with the whole question of gender, and how they would describe non-human animals.

  2. Anonymous

    We have to guard against anthropomorphism and yet if we DO know that a creature is male or female then why not address them as such. I find the s/he a bit awkward in terms of my own expression and tend to fall back on using it. I know young people are adept at using they, but as a retired teacher of English I find this sticks in my craw – unless I actually know a person has identified him/herself (there we go with a hurdle!!) in such a way that this is appropriate for them (!!!) specifically.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      It’s tricky isn’t it, especially as our ways of using language become so familiar and engrained over time. But I do like things that make us stop and think, and I feel that young people are often leading the way.

    2. sllgatsby

      There is precedent for using the singular “them.” It’s not new. I can’t imagine say or writing, “Oops, someone at that table just left their umbrella! Can you run after them? They won’t notice it’s gone until it rains again,” with his/her, him/her, and he/she. There is nothing ungrammatical about using the singular “they” when the gender is unknown. We’re just using it more. 

  3. Rosalind Atkins

    My sympathies with your palpable contortions ;0
    I am certain, though for obvious reasons unable to provide proof, that I grew up using they/them even for single individuals of whatever ‘type’. So to your friend, I would have said: Aren’t they beautiful? And the person putting on skin lotion put it on them (here of course, you have the added possibility of « themself »).
    Over the years, this unconscious habit seems to have dropped off (I haven’t always lived in English-speaking communities, which may have played a role, since the grammatical gender of nouns, as I’m sure you know, can be strange to say the least) and my default in English has become masculine. But I am trying hard to erase that bad habit, and get back to the good old days.
    I fully support, and agree with, your attempts to find your own comfortable way round this knotty issue!

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Thank you Rosalind! I do think that ‘they/them’ is often the way to go. I am very interested in how other languages deal with the issue of gender, and also how they refer to animals – I wonder if ‘it-ism’ is common in other languages too. It’s a bit of a big subject though!

  4. wunjo312

    I admire and appreciate the effort you make to show us each individual animal as their own person. He’s and she’s and they’s all help to underline that every animal has their own personality, and all to the good! I have not noticed any clunkiness in your writing in any way. I also admire the thought and effort you put into each serving of interest and humanity that greets me from the inbox every morning. A very sincere ‘Thank You!’.

  5. Anonymous

    Everyday, I find your blog very interesting.
    Not much time to comment recently.
    Yesterday and today, after reading it, I transferred it to my daughter , a translator.
    She obviously knows about all this, but this leads to an interesting reflexion from a different source…
    Thank you for writing about this.

  6. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    I’m quite happy to read s/he (or she/he or he/she if you prefer). I don’t go with all this recent they and them etc, unless it concerns more than one of course. Though I felt you fell into your own ‘trap’ when you said “that we recognise that it, too, has personality” when you could have referred more generally to animals having their own personalities.


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