Linguistic representations of donkeys in UK popular media and the implications for welfare

Cara Clancy
Fiona Cooke
Presentation date

A growing body of work has explored the effect of language on the way animals are perceived and treated by humans. This paper reports the main findings from a systematic study of the language associated with donkeys in British culture and how their representations affect the ways in which these animals are understood and treated. A digitised body of texts (a ‘corpus’) about donkeys was gathered from domains including news, social media, and animal welfare organisation texts. The corpus comprised one million words and was examined using specialist linguistic software for salient patterns in the grammar and lexis, which we then explored qualitatively (using techniques from discourse studies) to draw out the key characteristics of discourse about donkeys. Findings reveal the ways in which human dominance and social inequality (i.e. speciesist ideologies) are present in – and perpetuated by – language about donkeys. Donkeys feature in public discourses as victims in shock-value stories involving bestiality and (often extreme) acts of cruelty; as objects of entertainment in uplifting or entertaining soft-news stories; as objects of ridicule in zoomorphic representations (particularly in relation to politics and football); and as objects of pity when they are treated as commodities and consumables in geographically distant places. The findings contribute to the growing body of work on the discursive representation of animals and have important implications for individuals and organisations seeking to promote and improve the welfare of donkeys. They offer a challenge to negative stereotypes and inaccurate understandings of donkeys, as well as harmful aspects of anthropocentrism in language use. For The Donkey Sanctuary in particular, they provide a starting-point from which to build more positive perceptions of donkeys by generating effective discussion and targeting communication amongst key audiences.