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?