This week, the Journal of Animal Ethics declared the word “pet” politically incorrect. That’s right, you shouldn’t call your dog, cat, or gerbil a pet. As it turns out, that term is condescending and non-inclusive. You didn’t know it before, but take heed: Your dog, cat, or gerbil is either “a family member” or “an animal companion.”
Moreover, continue the researchers from the Oxford Center for Animal Ethics, the University of Illinois and Penn State University, the words “critter” and (gulp!) “owner” are also verboten. Somewhat ironically, the animal companion store here in town is called “Little Critters Pet Shop.” Man, are they toast. Sorry, that was sexist. I meant, “Humanoid, are they warmly crisped bread.”
I guess my boys and I are no longer the owners of two pet gerbils. Shucks. We are the human caretakers of two domestic animal companions, who not-so-inconsequentially happen to be Mongolian rodents. According to the JAE editorial, the word “wild” in reference to animals is also offensive. Instead, we are to use the term “free living.” Um … OK.
We’re into some weird territory if the phrase the “teacher’s pet” is now the “teacher’s animal companion.” Let’s not go there. And now my 1960s-era pet rock is a “mineralized family member.” Enough with the chiding, you say, it’s important to be politically correct. Sure, if you don’t mind calling manhole covers “personhole covers” or calling brainstorming (which may be offensive to someone with a brain disorder) “thought showering.”
But where do we draw the line? In order to answer that question, we need to resurrect the oft-neglected practice (at least in politics) of common sense. Although the term “common sense” may be offensive to someone who is either uncommon or has a sensory disorder, it is nevertheless helpful to employ. (You may prefer the term “everyday good judgment.”) Whatever you call it, it’s exactly what you need to decide whether you will let the children at your camp use the word “pet” to denote your camp canine or—to pick a more obviously offensive term—the word “wife-beater” to denote a white tank top.
Naturally, we should monitor the language our children use. Prohibiting swearing is an obvious place to start. Prohibiting and providing an explanation of why terms like wife-beater are unacceptable is an important next step. (What other pernicious terms have snuck into your camp’s lexicon?) But until my gerbils start helping with the laundry, doing some vacuuming, or cleaning their own cage—er, enclosed habitat—they will not be upgraded from “pet” to “companion.”
Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist, father and author of The Summer Camp Handbook, now available online for free at SummerCampHandbook.com. He is the co-creator of ExpertOnlineTraining.com, a set of Internet-based-video training modules for camp counselors, nurses and doctors. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.