The Plague of Wild Things

In Review: Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains

What city dweller hasn’t witnessed sly ravens, grackles, or crows maneuver outside of supermarkets pecking at snacks? Who hasn’t seen them dive into greasy dumpsters and haggle over scraps, or, heads cocked sideways, eye a garbage truck, clucking at the sudden bonanza? In the suburbs, the cast of alien trespassers becomes more varied. In some places they may include deer, moose, raccoons, bears — black, brown, or white — and pet-snatching cougars and coyotes. We’ve built havens free of predators and stocked with goodies, which they invade.

Or, from another vantage: These creatures have dwelled on our planet since the Pleistocene, and now that we have expropriated their turf, they’re making the best of it. From yet another, they are our benefactors: In some Indigenous myths, Raven or Crow steals the sun to give humanity light. One culture’s deity is another one’s pest.

Science journalist Bethany Brookshire’s probe into our varied and often conflicting zoological perceptions and beliefs in Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains opens with her ongoing feud with a gray squirrel. Every spring, she sallies forth with hope and plants tomato seedlings in her garden. Every summer, she resorts to store-bought salsa, “Because of f***ing Kevin,” who mangles the fruits of her labor before they even ripen. Things quickly become ugly and personal in the struggle for homegrown produce.

Through the lens of this quirky anecdote Brookshire examines her responses to the furry raiders. Being bested by rodents insults our primate intelligence. But, if squirrels don’t covet our chow or build nests in our attics, they’re “wildlife,” even “cute”; we feed them against ranger advice in our protected parks and give kids stuffed ones as cuddle toys. Their foraging “intrusions into our lives are also indicators of animal success,” Brookshire reminds us. Globe-spanning Homo sapiens should empathize with, if not outright applaud, fellow opportunists.

It’s not only squirrels we revile. Flies, bats, mosquitos, rats, crows, urban pigeons, and roaches all reinforce Judeo-Christian ideas about the unclean. In public health parlance, some of these are “disease vectors,” zoonotic time bombs. We picked Yersinia pestis as the name for the bacterium that, via rat fleas, reaped 25 million medieval lives in only four years during the Black Death. Rats and crows feast on our fallen. It doesn’t matter that each year in the US alone we sacrifice 100 million lab rats and mice to our god, Progress, or that crows are among the most intelligent animals. Downgrading animals to “pests” keeps our consciences clean when we try to exterminate them.

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House cats provide another telling example of how context and culture inform our views. For some, they are cuddly companions, while for bird lovers and conservationists they are a plague. Even fed, Brookshire remarks, these felines “kill for sport,” and as one of her sources says, they have an ecological impact five- or ten-fold that of native predators, many of whom we’ve trapped, poisoned, and replaced with our pusses. When Australians introduced cats to control rabbits, “catsplosions” sped up the extinction of 25 endemic mammal species while rabbits kept prospering.

Elephants offer yet another case study. On the one hand, tourists pour into countries like Kenya magnetized by its fauna. On the other, the animals are known to bulldoze homes, destroy subsistence crops, and trample hapless villagers in rural areas. One culture’s charismatic wildlife can be another’s revenue stream, yet also a bane.

In touching upon cats, squirrels, coyotes, deer, pigeons, and elephants, Brookshire outlines the problem’s extent. Her jovial tone barely disguises unease at being part of the problem of responding aggressively to animals we perceive to be out of place. Her book crystallized for me how woodpeckers machine-gunning a chimney pipe, warblers stunning themselves on a windowpane, bats in the bedroom, moose charging you in the driveway … are a package deal for forest suburbanites. When you make your home in the margins of civilization, you knowingly join a trans-human neighborhood, one in which your goals might clash with those of winged or four-legged residents, all tenants with previous claims.

From a geocentric perspective, it needs to be said, and Brookshire does, humankind is the consummate pest. Together with the livestock we’ve engineered, we today field 96 percent of the planet’s mammal biomass. On our watch, in the past five decades, wildlife populations have withered by almost three-fourths. People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. It would behoove us not to fling around certain slurs lightly.

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