Four years ago, after a particularly brutal winter and some damage from ice dams, pigeons took up residence in a section of my house’s eavestroughs. It was unpleasant, to say the least. My bed abutted the exterior wall where they were roosting, and my house is small enough that I generally heard their cooing throughout a quiet Sunday indoors. Eventually, at great expense, I had my eavestroughs redone and the pigeons were summarily evicted. Pests, I thought to myself. That opinion hasn’t changed—however, as Bethany Brookshire makes clear in Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains, it is important for us to understand how our relationship with animals has evolved over the centuries, and how we come to designate certain animals as pests and others as pets, exotic attractions, or whatnot. That includes my avian nemesis.
Brookshire takes us through, one chapter at a time, different animals that are considered pests at some point and in some place in human history. From rats to elephants to our very own house cats, these animals don’t have much in common except for one thing: they live alongside humans, and they frustrate us just by being themselves. Our reactions are varied but usually along the lines of vilifying and then seeking to extirpate the problem. Alas, as Brookshire points out multiple times, it usually isn’t so simple. Most pests are not easily eradicated—we would need to change how we live to achieve that—and even when they are, maybe eradication isn’t the best option. In her interviews with various experts, many of whom often assume contradictory positions, Brookshire explores the nuanced ethics around pest control.
It’s difficult for me to pick a favourite chapter. All of them are, in their own way, fascinating and edifying. The pigeon one stood out to me for my own personal experience with them as a pest. That chapter, in particular, really shows us how quickly society’s perception of an animal can shift: Brookshire explains how, up until the early twentieth century, pigeons were viewed in a very positive light. This historical lesson is valuable because it belies our perception, created by our short lifetimes, that our relationship with animals and nature as it is today is how it has always been.
For similar reasons, I really liked the chapter about elephants. Brookshire takes aim at white conservationists who are essentially reinforcing a colonial attitude when they seek to preserve elephant populations at all costs. If you talk to the villagers who live alongside elephants every day, the situation quickly becomes more complicated. It’s hard for us white Westerners to view elephants as pests because our perception of them is so influenced by their portrayal in media. For me, as a Canadian, the closest I could liken them to would be moose—majestic creatures worth protecting, yet also incredibly dangerous in the wrong circumstances.
I appreciate how much Brookshire, herself a white woman, deferred to Indigenous experts when learning about these creatures and our historical connections to them. Along the same lines, she seems to have gone out of her way to seek out and then faithfully present differing points of view. This was especially notable to me in the chapter on feral cats, where she interviews both proponents and opponents of the trap-neuter-return (TNR) approach to feral cat population control. At times, the back and forth way that she alternates between these people can get a bit confusing (so many names!). However, I respect the work that went into showing us so many sides of these issues instead of being simplistic or reductive. As a result, rather than emerging from that chapter feeling biased in favour of or against TNR, now I understand that it’s a complex issue—one that I would have to do more reading and thinking about before I fully made up my mind. But I certainly see now how different people in different parts of the world come to view the issue of indoor versus outdoor house cats so distinctly and often passionately!
Pests is a story of animals, yet it is also a story about ourselves, humanity. How we have made ourselves a kind of pest in so many biomes, moving in and setting up shop and pushing out indigenous species, then bringing in our own invasive species, only to often turn around and yell at them for being too successful. Humanity is a host of contradictions. Brookshire’s compassionate, thoughtful, and informative look at how we relate to the species with which we coexist is a potent reminder that there are seldom simple answers when it comes to conservation, preservation, and urban development. If we are to be successful in managing the pests in our lives, we must come to terms with the fact that pest-management solutions will be different in different contexts. Sometimes that means population control, or changing how we store our garbage. Sometimes that means accepting that we don’t have complete control over our environment, no matter what we might desire.