In September 2014, PETA filed charges against a remote sheep station, saying among other things that the language used by sheep shearers during their job qualifies as abusive. The animal rights group was upset not only at how the words were used but specifically what words were used as well.

According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, "For Ken Turner, who operates Boorungie Station, the complaint itself suggests the sheep could at least understand English. 'The allegation was that bad language was used by an employee on the property in front of the sheep, and that they could have been offended by the use of bad language.'"

Well, one of the allegations anyway. The complaint contained other more serious issues of concern as well, but the charge about the choice of words stands out since it is a fairly rare one. Two animal rights activists agree that language can certainly be considered abuse, but it's less about what you say and more about how you say it.

The president of Lawyers for Animals, Nicolah Donovan told the news organization, "We have accepted that domestic violence can certainly be constituted by acts of extreme verbal abuse...This might be the case with children or farm animals, and the level of abuse needn't be that extreme to cause that kind of fear in an animal." Lynda Stone of Animal Liberation NSW is quoted saying, "I'm not sure all animals can understand different dialects ... What they will be getting though is the threat inherent in the way that voice is used. I believe they can absolutely comprehend emotion."

The charges from PETA have since been formally dropped. PETA said in a statement, "[I]f foul language were the worst that sheep in Australian shearing sheds had to endure, then no complaint would have been filed."

But a question brought up by the whole kerfuffle is still an interesting one: Say you aren't yelling or directing your words at the animal, does swearing in front of an animal still count as animal abuse?

Weigh in with your thoughts in the comments: Do you, or would you, watch your language in front of animals?

Related on MNN:

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.