What makes humans call certain animals pests?
We spend so much time making sure wildlife stays away from us, whether it’s setting traps, building fences, or putting out poisons. Of course, unwanted guests are annoying. But why are some animals considered “pests”? It’s all about perspective, says science journalist Bethany Brookshire. “We can poison rats and protest their use as laboratory animals. We can shoot deer in the fall and show their adorable offspring to our children in the spring,” she writes in her new book, Pests: How Humans Create Mean Animals.
Brookshire argues that we view animals as “pests” when we fear them (like snakes). Or when they thrive in a niche we unwittingly created for them (think of the rats on the New York City subway). Or when they find a way to live in a habitat now dominated by humans (all those suburban deer). Sometimes we demonize an animal if we feel it threatens our ability to control the landscape (like the coyotes that attack our livestock, our pets, and even our children).
Through the lens of science, history, culture, religion, personal anecdotes and a healthy dose of humor, Brookshire breaks down how our perspective shapes our relationships with our animal neighbors. She also goes out into the field – stalking rats, hunting pythons, taming feral cats, stalking drugged bears – to see firsthand how pests are being dealt with.
Scientific News spoke with Brookshire, a former staff writer at Science news for students (now Scientific news explores), about what we can learn from pests and how we can coexist with them. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
NS: What inspired you to write this book?
Brookshire: I wrote a report that was on mice living with humans (SN: 04/19/17). [It was based on a study] showing that we have house mice since we have houses. I love that humans have had these other animals taking advantage of the ecosystems that we’ve basically been creating since we started living sedentary lives. Every place that has humans has its “rat”. Sometimes it’s a rat, and sometimes it’s a pigeon or a cockatoo or a lizard or a horse. It’s not about what these animals do. Animals live in ecosystems that we create and we hate animals that live too close.
NS: What surprised you during your research?
Brookshire: The reflexivity of people’s responses [to pests]. People react emotionally. When you get them to stop and think about it, they’re like, “Oh wow, that doesn’t make sense. I shouldn’t be caught trying to kill a raccoon with a sword. But right now, you’re so caught up in violating what you consider your personal space.
The other thing is the extent to which our disregard for parasites is wrapped up in social justice. Often we see this hatred and disgust for animals that we consider “lower class”. High class people don’t have rats. And it’s really about social justice, infrastructure, and people’s ability to live in clean homes, store their food properly, or even have a home.
Moreover, the way we treat these animals often has vestiges of colonialism, as in the chapter on elephants. [In Kenya, European colonists] grows corn and sugar cane, which the elephants love. Colonization created national park systems that assumed humans had no place in nature, driving out indigenous pastoralists. Colonization created the market for poached ivory. And the colonizers assumed that the indigenous people did not like elephants or did not know their benefits. We live with the consequences. Many modern elephant conservation efforts are led by Westerners, and they assume that the biggest problem with elephants is poaching and that indigenous people don’t know what’s best for them or for the elephants. In fact, the human-elephant conflict [which includes elephant crop raids] is the far bigger problem, and indigenous peoples have a long history of coexisting with elephants.
NS: In the book, you looked at many different cultures and included indigenous voices.
Brookshire: It is important to realize that there is more than one way to see the world. Learning about other cultures helps us understand our biases. It’s only when you come out of your own beliefs that you realize that’s not how things are.
NS: This appears when you write about the Karni Mata temple in India, also known as the temple of rats. Temple rats are not treated as pests, but a rat in a house would be.
Brookshire: It is the result of the context. And you see that in Western cultures all the time. People love squirrels. Well, they’re basically rats with better PR. Then you have people who have pet rats, who would probably scream if a sewer rat walked by.
NS: Are there any animals that you consider harmful?
Brookshire: No. Probably the animal I have the most negative impression of is humans. It’s funny because we think we can turn it all off. And I love the way these animals went, “Oh, poison? That’s cute.” “Ah, a trap? You’re funny.” We tried using electric fences on the elephants [to stop them from eating crops]. And the elephants are like, “Guess what? Ivory does not conduct electricity. Even though they have no tusks, elephants simply pick up a log [to destroy the fence].
NS: Do you hope to change people’s minds about pests?
Brookshire: I hope they will wonder why they react to pests the way they do. Instead of just saying, “This animal bothers me,” ask yourself why and does it make sense. I also hope that it will open more curiosity for the animals around us. I learned from indigenous groups how knowledgeable they are about the animals in their ecosystem. I hope more people will learn. A world you know well is simply a better world to live in.
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