Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains
© 2022 Bethany Brookshire
368 pages

Humans believe in and have attempted to create, a very orderly world. There are our cities and homes, where the only animals that belong are those there for our amusement, like pets and songbirds;  there’s the agricultural zones outside of cities, where we expect to find cows and the like, and then there’s The Wilderness, where Wild Animals live.     The problem with this neat and tidy world is that animals…..don’t care.   They ignore “POSTED” signs, stroll across highways, and even go for walks in our neighborhoods to investigate what smells so good.   In Pests, Brittany Brookshire  dips into the messy collision between natural ecosystems and the human environment, delivering information that is entertaining as it is informative,  though sometimes obnoxious in its aspirations to be sociopolitical commentary.

The animal-human relationships covered here are an interesting mix, between with the predictable – mice,  pigeons, and so on – and the larger surprises like elephants and Burmese pythons. (Southern Florida is all agog with them, apparently.)  Brookshire’s subtitle is multilayered, in that humans both ‘make’ animals into pests by our varying categories of them – a squirrel in the woods is cute, a squirrel in our garden is a cursed menace  that we’d like to shoot –  but also in that we facilitate the collision by both destroying or reducing the habitats of many animals in our own expansion, and by creating rather attractive new habitats for industrious critters to explore and exploit.   We also directly make animals pestilential, by  accidentally or purposefully introducing them into new ecosystems where they wreck havoc.   Cane toads might be introduced in the hopes that they destroy beetle grubs, for instance, and then accidentally destroy the local ecosystem when they prove both attractive and fatally toxic to the local predators.   Animals’ ‘pest’ status doesn’t just depend on where they are, though; it varies by what they do. Mrs. Green’s cat is a pet to her, but an ecological menace to the local bird population – and the tourists’   awe-inspiring elephants are  destructive, deadly bullies to the Kenyans who live near them, and who are forbidden from defending themselves on the basis that tourist income is the local state’s livelihood.  A common theme in Pests is the limit to human knowledge and manipulation: while we’d like to exercise dominion over the entire Earth,  nature proves to be rather like economics in that she fights back, and the best-dictated plans of technocrats and colonists result in famine and inflation. 

Pests manages to be utterly interesting,  often entertaining, and sometimes grating.  Brookshire, a science journalist, apparently fancies herself sociopolitical commentator as well – though her level of penetrative insight is on the level of a first-year university student who’s just discovered Marx and Zinn and begins every sentence with a sneer and the word ‘Actually,” .   One would think from reading this that European civilization is the only civilization in the history of humanity that has ever created environmental problems or struggled at interactions between wildlife and the human environment.  Indigenous cultures are treated with the same patronizing noble-savage take one finds in Avatar and similar movies,  ignoring the massive environmental manipulation pre-industrial cultures engaged in. (She does manage to work in a brief mention of the Chinese campaign against the ‘Four Pests‘, without using the massive ecological disruption and human death & misery that followed to moderate her ‘colonial’/European obsession.) There is a kernel of truth underneath the myopia, of course  — the problem is often outsiders coming in without any regard for local knowledge,  reducing the landscape to something to be manipulated at will,   typically removed from the unexpected consequences —  but Wendell Berry has made that point repeatedly and in a more engaging and respectable fashion, not patronizing those who he  praised nor sneering down at those he rebuked. Western colonial authorities are a fine example of the environmental problems caused by hubris, but they’re hardly the only ones, and Brookshire’s pretense (or ignorant belief) that they are sharply reduced my ability to take the non-science parts of the book seriously.  

Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution. On the ways animals are adapting to live very comfortably in dense human environments.


We can see them in more than one way. We can put poison out for rats and protest their use as laboratory animals. We can shoot deer in the fall and show their adorable offspring to our children in the spring. Vertebrate pests lay bare our internal hypocrisy—how the natural world fills people who live separate from it with both adoration and dismay.

But it could also be that people in the developed, industrialized, walled-off-from-nature Global North have a lot less tolerance for animals that harm them and a lot more tolerance for animals living far away, harming other people, notes Susanne Vogel, a conservation scientist at Aarhus University in Denmark. If elephants lived on the Great Plains of the United States and tried to eat our amber waves of grain? “They’d be shot before they could start,” she says.

When the scientists looked at which types of car were available, they found that of the cars in the park between 2004 and 2005, bears had a major preference: minivans. The bears headed for a minivan four times more often than would be expected by chance. Why are bears into minivans like they just hit thirty-five and had a third kid? Breck and his colleagues weren’t able to find out for certain, but he’s pretty sure the answer is the kids. Minivans are more likely to be driven by families—which means back seats with a fine layer of Cheerio dust and smearings of Go-Gurt. To the sensitive nose of a bear, that smells like jackpot.

For the history of the cane toad saga, there is nowhere better to start than the 1988 documentary Cane Toads: An Unnatural History. I have vivid memories of watching this film at summer camp as a child, and watching again as an adult did not disappoint. It’s got horror music and creepily giggling children cuddling giant toads. A naked man is horrified to find toads spying on him in the shower. A cane toad avenger swerves his van back and forth over the road, appearing to flatten cane toads with disturbing popping noises (don’t worry, the van was actually squishing potatoes, no cane toads were harmed in the making of this film). An old man in thick glasses notes emotionally how much he loves to watch cane toads mate. I can’t recommend it enough, honestly.

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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9 Responses to Pests

  1. Sounds like a great read!

  2. Marian says:

    The minivan excerpt is funny. I guess Winnie-the-Pooh’s affinity for sweet smelling foods isn’t so far off!

    Did she talk much about the various campaigns to “population control” certain species in favor of others? Some western states have taken a hard stance against wolves, and Obama’s administration proposed a plan of killing barred owls back in 2012 (to “save” spotted owls). I know there are good intentions on all sides, but it seems to me we are very short-sighted and careless in our treatment of animal life (unless it’s the favored ones… dogs or cats).

    • Population control to favor other species is mentioned LARGELY in the agricultural context, with the exception of squirrels in Britain. Evidently American greys have invaded, and red squirrels once regarded as pests are warmly regarded as plucky home-town underdogs. Wolves and coyotes are both discussed at length, though not owls.

      The book quotes from a dangerous amount of other books. I forbid myself from taking a look at them on amazon, lest I be tempted..

  3. Cyberkitten says:

    Pests are like weeds, aren’t they? Basically any creature not where they’re wanted or doing things we don’t want them to do….?

  4. Cyberkitten says:

    Just heard about the tornado there on CNN…. Everything OK with you?

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