Book Review: PESTS by Bethany Brookshire

In Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains, Bethany Brookshire takes a look at myriad animals whom many humans consider pests, from squirrels to cats to elephants, and offers insights into how we can, and must, view animals differently as we coexist during an era of mass extinction. 

What constitutes a “pest” depends on the animal, where they live, and whom they’re supposedly bothering. As Brookshire notes, animals considered pests are those who “aren’t staying in what we’ve decided is their place. A squirrel in a tree is adorable. A squirrel in your garden, or nesting in your roof, is an annoyance.” 

The animals featured in Pests are only a few examples; throughout time, those we humans consider pests has changed and will likely continue to change. In some cases, as with wolves, animals are pests only when they are plentiful; they are beloved (by some) when they become endangered. Pests highlights many of these contradictions and switchbacks; pigeons, as another example, were popular when they were used as food and as messengers—but once they were no longer useful to humans, they became “pests.” 

In other cases, such animals as deer or coyotes are acceptable to humans as long as they are not in our homes, gardens, or yards. “We love wild animals,” Brookshire writes. “But we only want them in the wilderness.” 

Brookshire shows this dichotomy as well as how an animal can be both a pest and revered at the same time. She visits an Indian temple where rats are celebrated—but only in the temple, not in people’s homes. She notes that Pacific rats, or kiore, were a food source for the Māori in Aotearoa/New Zealand and were treated with respect, until the more pesty brown and black rats took their place. Burmese pythons are considered pests in Florida, whereas in much of Southeast Asia, they’re listed as vulnerable on the IUCN’s Red List.

Pests challenges us to look at many animals in new ways. Elephants, who are beloved in the Global North, are pests to Kenyans whose homes and crops must constantly be defended. And if an elephant is killed by someone trying to defend their home or harvest, the fine is up to 20 million Kenyan shillings. If a human is killed by an elephant, however, the family is entitled to up to 5 million Kenyan shillings. “It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, in Kenya, elephant lives are worth far more than those of the Kenyans who live with them.” Tourism (10 percent of Kenya’s economy) and poaching further complicate matters. 

Cats, too, are seen differently depending on the circumstances. For many humans, cats are our family members; yet when they are homeless or feral (there are 30 million feral cats in the U.S.), they are considered pests. “At least 63 species have vanished entirely into the jaws of our favorite feline,” Brookshire writes. “They threaten 430 more.” In Australia, where cats are an invasive species—and a major cause of the extinction of twenty-five mammal species—cats are hunted, poisoned, and trapped. 

In addition to exploring the complex ways animals become pests, Brookshire looks into the reasons why humans fear certain nonhuman animals, and how different cultures have different relationships with and attitudes toward the animals some call pests. An animal becoming a pest is often due to the colonial conceit that animals exist to serve humans (not to mention the fact that colonization is at the root of many invasive species that turned into pests); most Indigenous people see animals as kin. 

It’s especially disturbing to see the ways humans do away with animals they consider pests. Florida encourages python hunting, including competitions; coyote-killing contests take place in the Western U.S. and Canada; and a Chinese campaign to eradicate sparrows in the 1950s actively involved kids in the slaughter, until eventually 2 billion sparrows were killed. 

And, looking at the big picture, humans are creating havoc coming and going. In the case of bears in Western Massachusetts and North Carolina, hunting and habitat destruction cleared them out, and then conservation brought them back. The Chinese got rid of 2 billion sparrows in order to save their crops—leaving them with no birds to eat the insects, which destroyed their crops anyway. 

The book’s hope is that humans will do better: “If there’s anything that needs to change, it’s us,” Brookshire writes. We tend to call animals pests when they make us feel uncomfortable, or afraid, or powerless—none of which is the fault of the animal—and Brookshire suggests we look inward instead of outward. “Pests often bring into relief what we hate about ourselves—our greed, our stubbornness, our fear, and the way we treat things we disdain.” 

Yet, she writes, we can escape from this way of thinking. “We could learn about the animals living in our environments,” she writes. “We could learn about the ecology of the place we live, and understand how we impact our environments and how those environments adapt in return.” 

Even more, we can remind ourselves that the animals whom we consider pests are not nearly as guilty as humans who caused the situation on the first place. Anne Quinn, a veterinary ethicist at the University of Sydney, puts it well: “We need to acknowledge our role as pests and think about how are we contributing to this problem. How are we creating the conditions for this population of animals to explode and addressing those conditions, rather than simply going after the animals?” 

Pests, while revealing our very disturbing past and present attitude toward animals, offers hope to those willing to see it. Brookshire reminds us, “Pests are proof not that nature is out to get us, but that it’s all around us.” And she encourages us to pay attention: “These reminders of our limits—in the yipping howl of a coyote, the scrabbling of a rat, or the bear at the bird feeder—might teach us something, if we cared to listen.” 

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