Animals as Tools


My buddy the vulture!

Another post inspired by my sister’s b-day trip to the National Zoo! 

In one part of the ape complex, they have activities, the types of things with which they test the intelligence of the apes.  It is a really interesting set up, but there was one part in particular that grabbed my interest.  The topic of the display is whether or not animals can be considered tools.  I will admit that, since the focus of the trip was, in fact, my sister’s birthday, and not finding fodder for my internet ramblings, I did not write down anything except for the topic.  This means that I will not be arguing for or against the zoo’s point, just trying to answer the question “Can/should animals be considered tools?”

My gut reaction is basically hell no, but I cannot just leave it without more thought. The obvious place to start is definitions of the words “animal”, and “tool.”  For these terms, we turn to our handy, easily accessible, web dictionary, Merriam-Webster online. 

An animal is defined as “any of a kingdom (Animalia) of living things including many-celled organisms and often many of the single-celled ones (as protozoans) that typically differ from plants in having cells without cellulose walls, in lacking chlorophyll and the capacity for photosynthesis, in requiring more complex food materials (as proteins), in being organized to a greater degree of complexity, and in having the capacity for spontaneous movement and rapid motor responses to stimulation”, or “one of the lower animals as distinguished from human beings.”  For this discussion, it really does not matter much which definition I follow.  The definition the zoo display was clearly following was the one excluding humans.  I make an effort to always consider humans as animals when I use the term, but we can just consider non-human animals for this discussion.

According to Merriam-Webster, a tool is “a handheld device that aids in accomplishing a task”, “something (as an instrument or apparatus) used in performing an operation or necessary in the practice of a vocation or profession”, or “one that is used or manipulated by another.”  This term is a bit more confusing, but basically a tool is something used to complete a task.


Just me having fun at the zoo! I thought I would add it before I got to preachy.

The answer to the simple question “Can an animal be considered a tool?” is, therefore, obviously “Yes.”  Non-human animals (and human animals, let’s be honest) are used to complete tasks all of the time.  Dogs are used to sniff out bombs, rescue people, or guide people.  Bees are used to create honey, and pollinate.  They are even carted around the country by beekeepers.  Cats are used to keep rodents away from the places humans have claimed.  Animals are clearly used as tools by humans everyday. 

The question of whether they should be thought of as tools, or even used in this way, is much more complicated.  I will not deny that many things for which animals are used do not cause the animals any harm.  In fact, the few service dogs, and mousing cats I have encountered seem very content in their lives.  This impression does not hold for all animals, of course. 

For now, I will leave aside the argument over the use of animals for specific cases in the future.  The issue at question here is how we think of animals, and the result of that thinking.  Many people consider animals to be less than human.  They cannot stop us from using them, or protest, so we will continue on as we have.  Thinking of animals as “tools” or any similar terms falls into a similar category as calling women “chicks”, or any number of animal related slurs for Black men, and women.  These terms reduce their humanity, and allow for their mistreatment.  Calling/thinking of animals as “tools” allows for their mistreatment, as well. 


Would you want to harm this face?!

Animals can be more easily cast aside, because we do not always ascribe emotions to them.  Think about, for example, how offended people get in America when they hear about someone eating a dog, a cat, or a horse.  Why is that any different than eating a cow, a chicken, or a pig?  Dogs, cats, and horses are pets to us.  We love them, and they become part of the family.  Almost human, if not equal to us.

In the end, this disconnect is not just a problem with our treatment of animals, but is relevant to our treatment of other people.  It takes work, but it is necessary to consider these other beings as actual, feeling creatures. 




A separate issue entirely:  I recently came down with Bell’s Palsy.  It is not really a big deal, but I decided to do some documenting of my recovery.  Mostly to make myself feel better.  You can find it here, if you are interested in some pics of my poor face.


About Tori

I am a graduate student working on my masters in Women and Gender studies. My masters thesis is on the gender nonconformity and ambiguity in modern film.
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