How Humans Create Animal Villains
An engrossing and revealing study of why we deem certain animals “pests” and others not—from cats to rats, elephants to pigeons—and what this tells us about our own perceptions, beliefs, and actions, as well as our place in the natural world
A squirrel in the garden. A rat in the wall. A pigeon on the street. Humans have spent so much of our history drawing a hard line between human spaces and wild places. When animals pop up where we don’t expect or want them, we respond with fear, rage, or simple annoyance. It’s no longer an animal. It’s a pest.
At the intersection of science, history, and narrative journalism, Pests is not a simple call to look closer at our urban ecosystem. It’s not a natural history of the animals we hate. Instead, this book is about us. It’s about what calling an animal a pest says about people, how we live, and what we want. It’s a story about human nature, and how we categorize the animals in our midst, including bears and coyotes, sparrows and snakes. Pet or pest? In many cases, it’s entirely a question of perspective.
Bethany Brookshire’s deeply researched and entirely entertaining book will show readers what there is to venerate in vermin, and help them appreciate how these animals have clawed their way to success as we did everything we could to ensure their failure. In the process, we will learn how the pests that annoy us tell us far more about humanity than they do about the animals themselves.
Brookshire, host of the Science for the People podcast, debuts with an eye-opening account of why certain animals are demonized. As she writes, "Our reactions to the animals in our lives are often a wild seesaw of deadly conflict and cooing compassion." That fraught dynamic plays out in the various viewpoints held on many species; some people view the growth of the American deer population as a good thing, for example, while others note the harm the animals have wrought on ecosystems. Brookshire covers a wealth of other creatures whose images shift depending on culture and context: snakes were once viewed as "good spirits" before the Bible ruined their reputation; rats, which are widely viewed as filthy, are worshipped in a temple in Deshnoke, India; and well before pigeons were pigeonholed as "a health menace" in the 1960s, they were domesticated. With clever anecdotes and fascinating history, Brookshire makes a solid case that humans ought to reconsider their relationships with animals: "Nature isn't always going to be tame and neutered for our pleasure.... It runs through our walls and in our sewers. It eats our trash and our crops.... We need to learn there's more than one way to be strong." Animal lovers will adore this clever survey.)