The Cow Who…
In a language like English, which implicitly categorizes animals as things rather than persons, switching from "that" to "who" would embody the recognition that cows, pets, and fish are all sentient beings, unlike tables, cars, and mountains. The personal pronoun would, in short, remind us who animals really are.
MELBOURNE – Last month, a steer escaped from a slaughterhouse in the New York City borough of Queens. Video of the animal trotting down a busy street was soon featured on many media outlets. For those who care about animals, the story has a happy ending: The steer was captured and taken to a sanctuary, where he will live out the remainder of his natural life.
To me, however, the most interesting aspect of the story was the language that the media used to refer to the animal. The New York Times had a headline that read: “Cow Who Escaped New York Slaughterhouse Finds Sanctuary.” Animal advocates have long struggled against the convention of reserving “who” for people, and using “that” or “which” for animals. Not all languages make this distinction, but in English, to refer to “the cow that escaped” seems to deny the animal’s agency. We would all say “the prisoner who escaped” but “the rock that rolled down the hill.”
It would be premature to conclude that the New York Times article indicates a shift in usage. Rather, it seems to show uncertainty, for the first line of the article refers to “A cow that was captured by police.”