No one mourns an unnamed animal: Why naming animals might help save them

by Midge Raymond

When I volunteered to help with a penguin census at the Punta Tombo colony in Patagonia, among the thousands of birds I counted, one of them stood out—and I still think of him ten years later. His name is Turbo—so named because he’d inexplicably built a nest under a turbo truck instead of within a burrow, like the other penguins of his species—and instead of looking for a mate, he preferred to hang out with the researchers.

Turbo has been tagged with a metal band by scientists, along with thousands of other birds in the colony. Yet Turbo also has a name, making him a local personality, while the other tagged birds in the colony have only five-digit numbers to identify them, making them nothing more than data. “Anthropomorphism,” the practice of projecting human qualities onto non-human animals, is often viewed pejoratively by the scientific community. But as a writer, not a scientist, I’m far more interested in character than in numbers. And since my time at Punta Tombo, whenever I receive updates on the colony, I look first for Turbo’s name, for confirmation of his return from his months at sea.

Like humans, animals don’t come into this world with names, at least not in any human language. It took a non-scientist, Jane Goodall, to challenge conventions when it came to studying animal behavior; by naming chimpanzees instead of numbering them, she was able to live among them and observe them like no researcher before her ever had. She observed the chimp she named David Greybeard making and using tools. She witnessed an adolescent chimpanzee, Spindle, adopting an orphan named Mel. And when the mother chimp she named Flo died in 1972, The London Times printed an obituary.

When we give an animal a name, we give it an identity, an individuality that sets it apart from the rest of its nameless species. And, in doing so, we often can’t help but develop an emotional attachment to these named creatures. This is why zoos and sanctuaries name their animals, and why, increasingly, wild animals whose species need attention are finding followers and sympathizers. When Cecil the Lion, a well-known and beloved resident of Hwange National Park, was killed by an American dentist last July, the world was outraged, and Cecil’s death highlighted the endangered status of certain species of lions, the cruelty of trophy hunting, and the practice of raising lions for hunting.

Yet Cecil was just one of many. It took his death—and the fact that he had a name—to raise the world’s consciousness, to give a face to the lions of Africa. In a similar fashion, Lonesome George, the last of his species of Galápagos tortoise, who died in 2012, reminds us all of the fragility of these islands and of their endangered animals. Migaloo, the Australian humpback whale, is known not only for being a rare albino whale but also draws attention to issues facing whales and oceans worldwide.

That writers name animals to give them equal weight as characters is nothing new, and is especially common in children’s literature—we all remember Charlotte and Wilbur, Stuart Little, the rats of NIMH. In adult literature, however, animals are more rarely seen as main characters. In Animal Farm, for example, the animal characters are allegorical rather than truly animal—and yet in more recent fiction, such as Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain and Gwyn Hyman Rubio’s Love and Ordinary Creatures, the dog and cockatoo characters, respectively, are meant to be just what they are: animals.

In my novel, My Last Continent, I gave a name to a penguin who plays an important role in the story. He’s called Admiral Byrd, after an explorer admired by the human character who names him. That this penguin needed a name other than “the gentoo” or “the penguin” or “the bird” was based not only on his importance to the characters in the novel but his importance to me, as the author. I wanted Admiral Byrd to represent all the penguins in my fictional world, who in turn represent all the penguins in the real one.

Humans have a complicated relationship with animals, though, and naming them—in literature or in life—doesn’t always mean saving them. In 4-H clubs around the country, animals raised by children and called by name are sold for slaughter by the pound. Oregon’s first confirmed wolf since 1947 is called Journey but is more commonly known as OR-7. Even animals at the shelter where I volunteer, though they have names, are identified primarily by number.

New York Times editor Philip B. Corbett wrote in a February 2, 2016, article that the Times uses “person” pronouns “only for animals who have been given a name, or in cases where the sex of the animal is specified. Otherwise, we stick with ‘it’ and ‘that’ or ‘which.’” In other words, the Times is about grammar, not about a point of view. But for those of us who do write with a point of view, names and pronouns are important.

We live in an era in which so many species are in decline that it’s impossible to keep count. From the Malayan tiger to the New Zealand sea lion to the Galápagos penguin, the numbers of endangered animals are staggering. Yet if every species has a named representative or two, we civilians might get to know who will be lost—and we might be more inspired to help them.

The scientists can continue to resist anthropomorphism—but this won’t save the animals, or make the rest of the world pay attention. Yet if we give these animals names, if we look at them as more than data, we might care more deeply. The more we humanize animals, the more human we become.

Turbo the penguin is now eleven years old. He’s still single, preferring the company of humans to his own species. This fall, I’ll eagerly await news of his return to the colony—where he will choose build his nest, whether he’ll still be a bachelor or will finally settle down. The data may tell us one story—but as long as Turbo shows up, I feel as though there is hope for all of these birds.

Midge Raymond is the author of the novel My Last Continent and the award-winning short-story collection Forgetting English. Her writing has appeared in TriQuarterly, American Literary Review, Bellevue Literary Review, the Los Angeles Times magazine, Poets & Writers, and many other publications. She lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she is co-founder of the boutique publisher Ashland Creek Press.