A New Book Explores Our Disdain for Pests

Journalist Bethany Brookshire argues that the idea of a “pest” is more about humans’ view of unwanted animals than the critters themselves.
A flock of pigeons takes off from a city street.
Rock Pigeons. Photo: George McKenzie Jr.

In 2016, science journalist Bethany Brookshire reported a news story about mice that would lead to a yearslong obsession with the idea of a “pest.” An archaeological study had found that mice and humans had a close-knit relationship. The rodents have thrived in and around people’s homes since the first human settlement was established in the present-day Middle East around 15,000 years ago, and they’ve followed humans around the world ever since. But the success of mice has come at the expense of their reputation: Human roommates see them as vermin for stealing food and carrying diseases such as bubonic plague.  

Brookshire was fascinated by the idea that the animals that live closest to us are often the most hated. Her story on mice was published in Science News in April 2017, but Brookshire’s interest in human hate for certain animals lingered and expanded to other species, including birds like pigeons, which are often called “rats with wings.” Her new book Pests, published by Ecco in December, explores through a series of species profiles why humans love some animals like cats but disdain the likes of mice, pigeons, and sparrows, seen as invaders of our spaces.

Audubon recently caught up with Brookshire to discuss the new book, our ire toward species that thrive in human environments, and whether it is possible to rethink this relationship with pests. 

Audubon: Some animals are considered pests, while others aren’t. What makes an animal vermin? 

Brookshire: That was kind of the premise—that pests are very subjective things. The idea of pests is not about animal behavior; the animals are just doing what they’re doing. We call them pests because they challenge what we want and what we believe our environments should be like. They challenge the idea that we have absolute control over where we live. They challenge the conception that the only things in our environment are the things we want there.  

This, unfortunately, is also a way of looking at the world. Our designation of pests is associated with what I call—and what other scientists call, I did not make up this term—a “dominion-associated mindset.” Basically, there’s this idea that we are the top animal on the planet. That’s not necessarily true. But it changes how much power we feel we have. 

A: What does designating an animal as a pest allow us to do?  

B: The word pest, one of my sources said, conveys a form of epistemological violence—which is the very long-winded way of saying it’s a mean word that allows you to do mean things. When you declare something a pest, you inherently say that it is less worthy. And that whatever you need to do to get rid of it is worthwhile.

For example, I wrote about cats in the book. I believe cat is a delicate subject in Audubon because they kill a lot of birds. Because of our belief about cats as pets, that makes controlling them as pests much harder. For example, there are islands where there are cats that decimate endangered bird populations. Replace those cats with rats and we have no compunction about dumping tons of poison on that island to kill off all the rats. But when it’s cats, we want to trap, neuter, and adopt them out. It’s fascinating to me how these changes are entirely based on our beliefs about cats. 

A: In the chapter about pigeons, you wrote that we domesticated them, but then we hate them. What caused this change of heart? 

B: We domesticated the pigeon about 5,000 years ago. The pigeon really highlights how humans—and by humans, I mean predominantly Western civilization—tend to only admire animals for which we have a use. We had a use for pigeons: We used them as food, messenger, and fertilizer. Then we developed the telegraph and cell phone for messaging, synthetic fertilizer, and chicken. Now we just let go of the animal we used to love. We assumed pigeons would just die out without us. But we’ve created niches in our cities that have been perfect for them. So they have continued to thrive. Now that we don’t have a use for them, we just disdain them.  

The pigeon very much reminded me a lot of how we replace our cell phone. You find your old cell phone and you’re like, “Oh God, what did I even do with this?” Pigeons are outdated cell phones; they are the iPhone 5. It’s so sad to me what we only see value in animals as they are useful for us.  

A: You highlighted the story of Four Pests Campaign in China in the 1950s, when people hunted billions of sparrows to protect their crops. But the effort backfired because when the birds were gone, the bugs took their place. The authorities eventually called off the campaign against sparrows. What are you trying to show with this story? 

B: The problem is when we try to exert control over environments without understanding what we’re doing. We go in with a sledgehammer, having not done the research or listened to the people who live there. 

A: You dedicated a chapter each to pigeons and sparrows. Did you consider including other birds in the book?

B: Oh my goodness, yes! I picked the animals that best illustrated the themes I was looking to highlight. The themes around what makes something a pest apply to almost every animal that we call a pest. For example, gulls could absolutely have been a chapter. People also have an amazing unreasoning fear of geese, it’s utterly hilarious. I actually have a bit in the conclusion about Wild Turkeys because I actually got attacked by one while writing this book. I can’t say I recommend it, but it was really funny. Every time you start talking about animals as pests, someone’s going to bring up starlings. People in Los Angeles complain about Rosy Parakeet. There are so many birds that could fulfill this brief. 

A: Do you think it’s possible to change this relationship with these animals that we call pests? 

I do think it is possible. In the conclusion, I wrote about how a lot of people, when I would tell them about this book, they go, “Oh well, it's obvious, humans are pests. We are the ones who have introduced these animals and we are so evil.” That’s just too easy! 

That’s the thing about humans: We can be better people. That’s what I learned talking to Indigenous peoples. There are other ways to see the world—if we see these animals as having a right to exist alongside us, if we treat them as neighbors and not as competition.  

That’s not to say that you need to just allow these animals free rein to eat all of your stuff. For example, I still work to keep squirrels and birds out of my garden. But I acknowledge they have a right to exist. I’m not going to go out and try eradicating them all with poison or a BB gun. I think there’s something to be learned about the animals that live around us and how we can see them differently. It means that you respect that other animals have a right to be in the space that you occupy. You don’t see the space that you occupy as innately yours and anything else is an intruder. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pests, by Bethany Brookshire, 384 pages, $29.00. Available here on HarperCollins.