Elephants Who Marry Mice

Don’t you just hate when you’re forced to face up to the fact you’re not as virtuous as you think you are?

One of the courses I’m currently writing for the International Fund for Animal Welfare came back to me with some corrections. My reviewer had changed the following sentence, the change in capitals.

“Dogs WHO showed pessimistic behaviours were more depressed.”

And try as I might, my gaze kept tripping over that word. Dogs Who, Dogs Who, Dogs Who.

Let us momentarily leap backwards in time to our English classes. My education contained very little formal grammar training, which may be obvious to the casual reader, but even I know that personal pronouns (e.g. who, he, she, they) are reserved for people. Animal are referred to as objects (e.g. which, it, that).

“The dog which barked” is preferable to “The dog who barked”.

“It is lying in the cat basket” may be preferable to “she is lying in the cat basket”.

This can lead to the English language treating animals very strangely. For example, say you visit a new acquaintance. You know this acquaintance has two cats, Gin and Tonic (this friend might be a bit odd), but you see one cat on the windowsill. You want to know, is that cat Gin or is that cat Tonic? You may ask “What cat is that?” or “Which cat is that?” seeing as you know it is one of two. It would be wrong to say “Who is that?”

Is it problematic to refer to animals as objects? Well first we have to ask if grammar affects the way we think. (And before we go any further I want to tell you that journals on grammar and semantics are almost as impenetrable as journals on molecular genetics)

Boroditsky (2009) investigated the differences in how speakers of English and Mandarin thought about time. In English we speak of time as a horizontal construct (you look ahead to the good times and back on the bad times) whereas in Mandarin time is spoken of in a vertical manner (the paper gives the translated example “what is the year before the year of the tiger?”).

The experiment itself is a bit odd to get your head around, but first they primed English and Mandarin speakers with either vertical or horizontal concepts (i.e. the black worm is ahead of the white worm, the black ball is below the white ball) and then given ‘target’ statements about time ‘March is earlier than April’, ‘March is before April’.

English speakers answered these questions faster after hearing a horizontal prime (similar to how they think of time) and Mandarin speakers answered these questions faster after they had heard a vertical prime (similar to how they think of time). Boroditsky concludes that the way we speak frames the way we perceive the world.

But does this happen in animal welfare? Well I’m not the only one who wondered about this. Gilquin & Jacobs (2006) wrote a paper which is whimsically titled ‘Elephants Who Marry Mice’. They reviewed style standards in various publication manuals. For example, the Guardian’s, which you can find here, says:


pronoun “it” unless gender established


The Guardian also says:

any more

Please do not say “anymore” any more


So I don’t dream of writing a Comment Is Free column anymore.

Unsurprisingly, Gilquin and Jacobs found that it was the familiar animals (horses, dogs, cats, etc.) which scored a ‘who’ more often than the non familiar animals. Furthermore, publications aimed at animal-related interest groups were more likely to use ‘who’, e.g. Dogs Today.

They noted that in general texts or interviews, the personal pronoun was used when the author wanted to garner sympathy for the animal in question. It is “the poor cat who was stuck in a tree” rather than “the cat which was stuck in the tree”.

More interestingly, given some of my other posts on anthropomorphism, 60% of the sentences they found which used the personal pronoun for the animals attributed human-like characteristics to the animals.

Gilquin and Jacobs conclude that ‘who’ is used in English to refer to animals, although inconsistently. They suggest a wider adoption of this grammatical structure might engender more empathy for animals from humans, something which I think reflects what Ganea et al found in their work.

Should animal welfare scientists be calling for the personal pronoun usage?

I really can’t decide. I’m not convinced that it will completely change the way we think about animals. But it’s a nudge you might want to be aware of if you’re talking animal welfare science.


And for what it’s worth, I changed the text on the course.

The Black Dog

In the last twelve months one of my little sisters has struggled with depression. I think she’s coping remarkably well with it and I’m really very proud of her. Recently she got some bad news and in one of my weekly ‘putting the world to rights’ calls with my mother, I said that if she looked like this might set her back we should encourage her to get a cat.

Mum laughed and agreed, and then the next day phoned me frantically to exclaim: you should blog about that!

So here is the blog about pets and depression!

I have good reason to suspect a pet would help my sister, as well as other people with certain kinds of depression. And it’s not just because of this Eddie Izzard sketch.

There are two many theories regarding why we keep pets, and I’ve spoken about them before. They boil down to this: either pets take advantage of us, or pets give us some advantage in life. Much of what I’m going to talk about today falls under this second theory, but remember – it could just be a way our little social parasites have evolved to keep us sweet.

Pets Matter to People

One of the most interesting (and sadly unpublished) pieces of research I’ve ever done was investigating how online pet obituaries represent owners feelings about a pet passing away. Pets are very dear to their owners. People often say they love their pet ‘like a child’.

Interestingly, when people have been asked to rate how the loss of a pet makes them feel, they’ll say it’s analogous to losing touch with an adult child (Gage & Holcomb, 1991). Therefore the loss of a pet is a stressful event – just what I want for my blue sister, right? The inevitable loss of an animal.

What I find really interesting about that comparison is that it talks about children, but doesn’t directly compare the loss of a pet to the loss of a child. Part of me wonders if there’s not a little bit of cultural bias in there. You’re not allowed to say that losing a pet is as bad as losing a child (and personally I can’t imagine that it is), but that language seems to put it as close to the worst possible feeling as is socially acceptable.

Pets Are Good For People

If I was to put on a white lab coat and force you to do a mental arithmetic test, you’d get stressed out. This is a pretty common psychological stressor. If I made you do it in front of a friend, you might even get more stressed out, your heart rate would rise. However, if I made you do arithmetic at home, you’d feel calmer.

What’s really interesting about all this is if I made you do arithmetic at home in front of your best friend, and then made you do arithmetic in front of your dog, and lastly all by yourself,  you would be even calmer with your dog than by yourself. (Allen et al, 1991). Animals have this amazing ability to calm us down.

Blood pressure (and heart rate) go up with mental stress. Allen (who seems to have enjoyed making people do mental arithmetic in their home, I can only imagine she creeps up on neighbours with multiple choice tests) tested the presence of a dog against ACE inhibitors, drugs designed to lower blood pressure, and in the presence of mental stress, the dog helped people to cope better than the drug (Allen et al 2001).

This doesn’t mean dogs are natural anti-depressants. Karen Allen (unfortunately, not this one) uses a great phrase to describe how we view dogs: nonevaluative social support.

Which is a scientific way of saying ‘dogs are awesome because they don’t judge me when I’m eating Nutella out of a jar’. As an aside, I’ve heard some people complain that cats are more likely to judge than dogs, but I’ll point out cats have this weird fascination with accompanying you to the toilet, and like to make eye contact with anyone in the vicinity while they themselves are defecating, and so I’ve never felt too judged by any of my cats.

Don’t go to down the road of thinking that pets, or dogs, can ‘cure’ depression. But what they can do is alleviate stressful states (Wilson, 1991).

Pets and the Vulnerable

I have this belief that a child should have a pet. It’s probably one of my strongest child-rearing beliefs (apart from the whole ‘feed them, love them, clothe them’ idea). But I also believe that the elderly should have pets too.

My stepmother recently passed a significant birthday (I hasten to point out she’s not elderly). Her and my dad’s beautiful dog Rosa is entering old age however. At the  significant birthday we talked about retirement and I pointed out that after Rosa passed, they’d have to get a new dog at retirement. I couldn’t imagine them filling their days without a dog, for all there will be a long period of grieving after Rosa’s death.

My dad tells a story about his family. He, his sister and his mother conspire to get their dad a new dog after the old one dies. My Grandpa insists he doesn’t want a dog, can’t stand the thought of another dog, that their old dog was the only one for him. Newly retired, he sits in his living room and sulks.

My dad, my aunt and my grandmother go to a breeder who has some highland terrier puppies. They select a tiny white ball of fluff and take him home. They open the door to the living room and send the puppy through, waiting in the hallway for the reaction.

The puppy’s name was Angus, and he is the first dog I remember. He was my grandpa’s companion through my grandmother’s death, and helped me and grandpa chase flies with the hoover.

My Grandpa and his terrier Angus on the shores of Loch Lomond
My Grandpa and his terrier Angus on the shores of Loch Lomond

This is the essence of non-evaluative social support. When there are bad times, or particular stresses, they somehow help us cope. Elderly people require more social support, this manifests in reports of feeling lonely, of multiple visits to the doctors, etc. However elderly people with pets report visiting the doctor less often (Siegel, 1990, Knight and Edwards, 2008). And given the physiological changes that Allen recorded, I’m happy to assign this difference to the act of owning pets (as opposed to pet owners being less likely to visit the doctor because of some internal difference), but it should be pointed out that there are lifestyle benefits to pet owning.

But one of my absolute favourite papers about the benefits of pets to vulnerable people (yes, I have a favourite), is one by Kaminski et al (2002) [someone hosts a pdf here].

What’s more vulnerable than a hospitalised child? It’s a horrible thought. We have all sorts of therapies to help children adjust to being in hospital, and these include pet therapy. In this simple little study, the authors asked kids to rate their emotions before and after a play therapy session and before and after a pet therapy session. Pet therapy had a bigger effect on their positive interactions than play therapy did. Pets made sick kids feel good, and it wasn’t even their pet.

We Know The Effect, What’s the Reason?

This is the kind of scientific question I love – we see a nice measurable effect, but the why of the question is something intangible. It’s not a ‘real’, ‘quantifiable’ thing, and I think this is why I love animal personality. I love the difficulty of wrestling with non-linear qualities and multidimensional space. No one tell my old maths teacher.

Archer (1997) [a pdf here] wonders ‘why’ people love their pets. I love the part of this paper that talks about how often people show such an attachment to their pets that they do something ‘odd’, such as make the pet the best man at a wedding, fight for legal custody, etc. He talks about the commonly held idea that people own pets to make up for a deficiency in their human relations. If you can’t make real friends you go out and become a cat lady. (Here I’ll point out I’m currently considering getting a cat of my own). Ultimately Archer dismisses this, in part because in Western society we are very influenced by a particular line of thought which gives humans “ dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Genesis 1:26), and in part because many studies show that pet-owning correlates with a lot of personality traits we consider desirable in our society.

In the end Archer is a proponent of the social parasite theory and says these advantages are not enough to provide an advantage to human survival. I’m not sure I agree, but that’s a topic of another post. The point is that whatever the mechanism, people feel a very strong attachment, undeniably love, to an entity which does not judge or present them with the kind of social contract that we engage in with other humans.

Back to the Sister . . .

I think my sister is doing fine. I hope she continues to do well. Do I think that cat would ‘fix’ her? No, not at all. But I do appreciate the phrase ‘unconditional love’. This next statement I have no reference for, but I think you’ll see it for what it is . . .

In films, tv shows and stories, there’s often a moment where somebody with little else to value in their life has their precious pet taken from them. We’ve named a trope for this effect: ‘kick the dog’. Who didn’t cry the first time they watched Kes? We know this feeling of love for our pets so well that when someone hurts a pet, we know it is immediate short-hand for ‘this person is so evil they have removed the last remnant of support from a person’s life’.

I don’t recommend dogs to combat the black dog in general, but I do think there’s something to be said to coming home to a pair of brown eyes.


Edited to add:

I thought I’d link to some depression resources for anyone in need of support. And I want to point out I sought my little sister’s permission to share her story. If you are feeling depressed, I really hope you find the support you need. xxx

NHS Depression Support Groups


AACAP Depression Resource

Hyperbole and a Half – Not a resource but a truly insightful look into what it feels like to be depressed.


The Anthropomorphism High Horse

I rarely read a piece of scientific journalism and think “what absolute tosh”, in part because I tend not to use the word ‘tosh’ and in part because I know that science journalism involves digesting and reconfirming a complex idea. It’s not easy.

But this article had me gnashing my teeth. It’s a summary of a paper by Ganea et al 2014 [in press pdf download – only link I can find]. The essence of the paper is this: children which grow up in urban environments (in this case pre-school age children from Boston and Toronto) are not exposed to animals. When they’re given anthropomorphic stories about unfamiliar animals (cavys, handfish and oxpeckers) they will agree with statements that attribute complex emotions to those animals, but not statements which attribute human physical capabilities, e.g. talking, to the animals. The conclusion is that anthropomorphic animal stories inhibit a child’s ability to learn animal facts.

The science I think is interesting – it is the conclusion and the bandying about of the word ‘anthropomorphism’ that get my goat. Let rant at you.

The article’s author says:

Setting aside the shades of grey as to whether non-human animals have analogues for things like friends, the findings suggest that for young kids, “exposure to anthropomorphized language may encourage them to attribute more human-like characteristics to other animals than exposure to factual language.”



This anthropomorphism spectre infuriates me at times. Let me put it this way, one of the questions asked of the children was “do oxpeckers have friends?” I’m asked relatively frequently if cows have friends, and if I want to answer that question accurately, I have to dance around terminology and use baffling scientific language to answer it in a way that means ‘yes but I can’t really say that because I’m a scientist’.

Cows have preferential associations within their herd. Being with these other individuals makes them more capable of physiologically coping with stressful events (Boissy & Le Neindre, 1997) such as being reintroduced to the milking herd (Neisen et al, 2009), being milked (Hasegawa et al, 1997), or feed competition (Patison et al, 2010a). They will preferentially engage in social interactions with these preferred associations, and these associations go on for longer than with other animals (Faerevik et al 2005, Patison et al, 2010b).

How do you explain this to a 2-5 year old child from Boston without using the word ‘friend’ or any synonym of it? Is it any wonder a child might reasonably assume that animals can have friends? Is it wrong to say that an animal can have a friend?

My irritation here lies with the writer of the article saying children believed ‘falsehoods’ about animals, based on anthropomorphism. We get one link, to a website I can’t access being based in the UK, to research which might suggest animals are similar to us in some ways. Then we move on to a paper I’ve referenced before talking about how dogs’ guilty looks are based on our behaviour (Hecht et al, 2012). The underlying assumption is still that animals are so different from us that children are wrong to believe that animals have the capacity for friendship and caring.

Now I’m fascinated by dogs for precisely this reason. They are so excellent at communicating with us, and reading us, that they are almost in-animal as much as they are in-human. They’re a possible model for human-child behaviour they’re so adept at this. I wouldn’t necessarily use dogs as an example for how the rest of the animal kingdom thinks if I was very worried about making cross species comparisons.

Anthropomorphism is either the attribution of human characteristics to animals. In which case it cannot be used pejoratively. For example, to say “This cow has eyes” would be anthropomorphic.

Or anthropomorphism is the inappropriate attribution of human characteristics to animals, in which case you must carefully consider why the characteristic is inappropriate when given to animals. It is not anthropomorphic in this case to say “This cow feels fear”, because fear, as we understand it, is an evolutionary mechanism to increase your chances of survival, it has physiological and behavioural components and the cow meets all of these. Ergo, this cow feels fear, and that is not an inappropriate characteristic.

Much as I lament the fact urban children have very little contact with the natural world, and I think this is a major issue for animal welfare, food sustainability, and the mental health of the children, I don’t fully agree with the paper’s conclusions, or the writing up in the Scientific American blog.

Firstly, the study found that all children learned new facts regardless of whether they read the anthropomorphic story or the non-anthropomorphic story. The results appear to indicate to me there was less fact-retention in the anthropromorphic story (and while I’m not a psychologist, I have worked with children and I do now work in education, I wonder if the anthropomorphic story, being similar to entertainment, indicated ‘you do not need to pay attention here’ to the kids. This does not appear to be discussed in the paper.).

Secondly, the study found that the children who had anthropoorphic stories told to them were more likely to describe animals in anthropomorphic terms immediately afterwards. Now again I’m no psychologist, but after I went to see Captain America I was partially convinced I was a superhero. It faded after the walk home. I’d like to know more about the extent of this effect over time before I declared anthropomorphic stories as damaging to children’s learning.

Thirdly, the Scientific American article presents some ‘realistic’ and ‘anthropomorphised’ images of the animals side by side. This is not what happened in the paper. In the first experiment the children were shown ‘realistic images and factual language books’ or ‘realistic images and anthropomoprhic language books’. The second study used ‘anthropomorphic images and factual language’ and ‘anthropomorphic images and anthropomorphic language’. The upshot of this is that the realistic image condition was not directly compared to the anthropormphic image condition, regardless of how it seems when you read the Scientific American article.

The paper says at one point:

This reveals that, like adults, young children seem to have a less clear conception of differences between humans and other animals in regard to mental characteristics, as opposed to behaviors. However, exposure to anthropomorphized language may encourage them to attribute more human-like characteristics to other animals than exposure to factual language.



Well there’s little wonder about that because even we scientists don’t have a particularly clear conception of the mental differences between humans and other animals. The paper itself is interesting and well worth a read, but it falls into the trap of thinking about anthropomorphism as a wholly negative thing. If I was a reviewer I’d suggest Serpell (2002) as an excellent starting point for a more balanced view of the phenomenon.

And I’d also suggest they watch this video before assuming that kids are daft for thinking animals feel emotions.


Why Do We Care About Animal Welfare?

Every so often, usually late at night or early in the morning, when I’m on a farm and I’m cold and miserable, I wonder why we care about animal welfare.

After all, they’re not human. Why do we worry about their lives? Why do we want them to have the freedom from pain, freedom from hunger, freedom from discomfort, freedom from fear, or the freedom to behave in a natural way?

And we clearly do care about animal welfare. The RSPCA was the 12th most popular UK charity in 2012, if you judge by donations. They surpassed the British Heart Foundation, Marie Curie Cancer Care and Barnardo’s, one of my personal favourite charities. Now, financial spending is a relatively poor way to judge how much a community cares about something (all you need is a few people with big purses and you can earn quite a lot of money without much support at all *insert joke about your least favourite political party*). So how can we appropriately gauge the public’s interest in animal welfare?

Historically, animal welfare legislation in the UK started with the passions of one or two people. In 1822 an MP succeeded in having  the ‘Act to Prevent the Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle’ passed by the House of Commons. Somewhat predictably, the wording quickly needed amending to make sure people realised when they said ‘cattle’ they also meant bulls. Politics.co.uk has an interesting history of animal welfare legislation. Note how this MP went on to form the RSPCA (after receiving Queen Vic’s patronage).

More recently, many people talk about Ruth Harrison’s ‘Animal Machines’ opening their eyes to how our food is produced. Here we begin to see something more tangible. The change in consumer practices shows that consumers are willing to pay for animal welfare (Verbeke & Viaene, 2000) and that consumer choice is affected by many different things: the information they receive on animal welfare, the taste of a product (Napolitano et al 2008), how they feel about their own health and, importantly, because they place a value on animal welfare (Blokhuis et al 2003).

This concern for animal welfare therefore must exist in society, enough to change our consumer habits in measurable ways, but why?

We have a bond with animals which forms at some point in our lives. Think about yourself. When did you first realise you cared about animal welfare? Was it when the family dog sat beside you at the dinner table and gave you big, sad eyes because it wasn’t getting any food and your dinner smelled so good? And you realised that this dog, your playmate, your friend, wanted something? Think how difficult a concept that is for a child to grasp, that something other than themselves wants something. Think how amazing it is that they can grasp this about a ‘something’ which can’t even speak, or share our facial expressions.

In 2003, Melson wrote a paper about the relationship between child development and the human-animal bond. It opens with three quotes demonstrating the capacity have for caring, but also their capacity for cruelty. It’s a fascinating paper and I think it’s a strong argument for more research into this area. She talks about research that shows children with pets show more informed reasoning of the natural world, the social support children get from their pets, and most importantly – how it teaches them to care.

We’ve all heard our parents say it “Getting a dog/cat/pony/dragon is a big responsibility, are you sure you’re ready for it?” Most likely our parents knew full well they would be the one getting up in the mornings. And of course it’s usually the parents who make the final decision, regardless of how responsible the children are. Still this phrase is somewhat of a right of passage, a declaration that pet-owning is a responsibility. We accept there is a moral duty to owning a pet.

Yes there are some people who don’t care about animal welfare. But there are some people who don’t care about human welfare either. In fact, the relationship between cruelty to animals and cruelty to humans might be the key to explaining why we care about animal welfare.

Daly & Morton (2008) asked a group of students how they felt about watching animals being killed. Unsurprisingly they were discomforted by it, but those who were more empathetic (including women, as they tend to score higher on empathy scores), and those who were more likely to relate to fictional characters, liked it least. The question of ‘why are we an empathic species?’ is  a slightly different topic, fascinating, but for another post. The point here is that empathy allows us to care about animal welfare.

Arluke et al (1999) used the term ‘graduate’ to describe how people move from committing animal cruelty to violent crime, because animal cruelty is a form of training. Lacking the empathy to appreciate how hurting an animal is wrong is a fairly good indicator of whether someone will go on to hurt people (although Arluke et al are quick to point, and I should be too, that animal cruelty does not always lead to violent crime). Most horrible of all, prisoners incarcerated for violent crimes who have been exposed to and sometimes participated in animal abuse as children were also often abused through childhood (Miller & Knutson, 1997).

Sometimes in discussing animal welfare we get very caught up in issues such as animal consciousness, whether animal can feel pain, or to what extent we should be legislating all of this. It’s important sometimes to step back and to question why we care – especially as there’s so little research on it. But it’s equally important to note that all the research we do have shows us that caring about animals is an important part of being human, about growing up human, and about caring for other humans.

So if, over Christmas, you feel a little caught up in all the commercialism and you get to wondering about the size of the turkey on the dinner plate, take heart. You’re only wondering because you’re human. And it’s human to care.