Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains

Image of Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains
Release Date: 
December 6, 2022
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“Brookshire delves deeply but accessibly into how different cultures assign very different values and meanings to animals . . .”

Pests. So like us. If it weren’t for humans, there wouldn’t be pests, although the world would still have rats, cats, elephants (yes, pachyderms can be pests), and pythons. And let’s not forget mice, or rather Australia’s unforgettable plagues of thousands, perhaps millions, of mice eating their way across the continent.

Bethany Brookshire gives these and many other species their due in Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains, a witty, well-written duet of the natural history of animals’ lives in counterpoint to the many, often contradictory meanings we attribute to creatures doing nothing more than what they’ve evolved to do.

Pests, as Brookshire notes, are “animals that aren’t staying in what we’ve decided is their place.” Pests aren’t intrinsically annoying, or vicious, or filthy. Species become pests when people “have a sense of ownership over stuff they want to protect, and they need to see the difference between what is theirs and what isn’t.”

Some pests are weedy species that can thrive alongside us. Some are native to an area and become pests when we blunder into new landscapes. Others are invasive species, often brought to new ecosystems due to human actions (intentional or otherwise). None of which ignores the impact these species may have on their ecosystems. Burmese pythons may just be being pythons, but their presence (presumably from the pet trade) means the Florida Everglades are barren of the fauna that once graced this unique and now forever altered landscape.

What makes a species a pest changes with time, culture, circumstances, and human nature. Pigeons were long admired for their beauty, savored as a tasty and easy meal to catch, and trusted as messengers. Then came the rise of chicken factory farming, and the invention of the telegraph and telephone. Quite suddenly pigeons became an urban pestilence, little more than rats with wings. Depending on who you ask, rats can be reincarnated humans protected by a local goddess, a tasty meal, or resourceful scavengers of food from poorly maintained sanitation systems, homeless encampments, or other markers of social inequality (although rats will also be found in middle- and upper-income communities).

“A pest isn’t a part of nature any longer,” Brookshire argues, as she looks unsparingly but sympathetically at the conflicted and all-too-human thoughts, feelings, and arguably instinctive reactions we have to the pests in our lives. “A pest becomes an evil influence that must be eradicated, and the ends will now almost always justify the means.”

Yet some of the finest, most dedicated python hunters in the Florida Everglades are men and women who admire and even love snakes. And the people killing the feral cats that are decimating Hawaii’s native birds? Not a few are scientists who adore their feline pets. Mice followed grain into our early communities, and cats followed shortly after. Now cats are our cuddly darlings, or are they the extinction-drivers of urban and suburban birds, or are they symbiotic helpers that keep mice from our kitchens and birds from the sunflowers we grow in our backyard? Or are they all three?

Brookshire delves deeply but accessibly into how different cultures assign very different values and meanings to animals, the potentially mutually beneficial models of Indigenous and Western scientific thought, notions of invasive versus native species, the role of fear and disgust in protecting individuals and forming communities, and the many scientific disputes surrounding the species that live perhaps too close to our lives.

“The word “pest” doesn’t give animals – or us – a chance. It takes away context and complexity. It shuts down our curiosity, our desire to look for other angles or solutions,” writes Brookshire. Arguably the best gift to the reader amidst this wealth of scientific, ecological, and historical information are the practical strategies, from bear-proof trash cans to coyote vests for poodles, we can use to replace conflict with co-existence.

Elephants, for example, went from being seen as “big game” hunted to near extinction due to Western colonialism, to becoming perceived as the noble, intelligent, and empathic poster child for wildlife conservation, but the Kenyans who live alongside elephants must cope with “…living tanks, capable of killing, disemboweling, knocking down houses, and eating a farmer’s entire crop for the season…When a black bear traps a family in their home for forty-five minutes in the United States, it’s news. When an elephant herd in Kenya traps a family and their cattle in their home and corrals for a day, it’s Tuesday.”  Saving the elephant means supporting local Kenyans in finding their own solutions, be it diversifying from corn to vegetable crops, engaging in micro-banking to foster local industries like sewing bags, setting up beehives along fence lines (elephants do not like bees), and even going high tech with GPS trackers and quadcopter drones to keep elephants a mutually safe distance from human communities, all while not falling into the paternalistic assumptions left by a history of colonialism and exploitation.

Readers interested in wildlife conservation, environmental restoration, natural history, or the complexities of human relationships with non-humans will find Pests a welcome (and well-thumbed) addition to their bookshelves. Anyone who wants to live more thoughtfully and effectively alongside the creatures that will always be part of our lives will enjoy Pests.