Pests, by Bethany Brookshire

I’ve been meaning to read a lot more popular science books outside of my field lately, in order to broaden my knowledge and just get back in the habit of reading that I fell out of during the Dark Times of 2020-2021. Fortunately, in recent months a number of my classic scicomm blogging friends (that I’ve now known for over a decade) have written books, and this has been a great opportunity and motivation to get reading again! The first one that I’ve finished is Pests (2022), by Bethany Brookshire.

My copy of Pests, with one of my own personal pests for comparison.

Human beings are thoroughly familiar with animal pests, from the pizza rats of New York City to the raccoons of Chicago going through our garbage cans to the coyotes of, well, almost everywhere now, threatening family pets and small children. But are we really that familiar with those animals that we call “pests,” and do we really understand what a pest is?

Pests is an insightful and engrossing look at what it means to be a pest, and how that term is more a reflection of our own human biases and needs than of the animal’s nature. It looks at the stories and history of a wide variety of animals, from ubiquitous animals like rats, mice and pigeons to exotic animals like snakes and elephants and even those animals that we have taken into our home, like cats. It leaves off all the creepy crawly invertebrates like spiders and cockroaches, which would probably merit a book all on their own. (And I don’t miss them here!)

Bethany (though I usually call authors by their last names, it seems weird to do that for a good friend) has been an excellent science journalist for many years, and her book shows off her talents. It is a personal narrative as well as a story of science and history, and she shares her own personal anecdotes, both in daily life and in traveling to talk to wildlife specialists about their efforts and see firsthand the conflict between humans and their so-called pests. The story leads to many unexpected places, from temples in India to homeless encampments in Seattle to the Kenyan savannah. Throughout the book, Bethany shows us many different types of pests, many different situations in which they are encountered, and many different responses to the problem.

While reading the book, I was thinking of the old saying, “the dose makes the poison,” apparently credited to the Swiss physician Paracelsus in describing toxicity. The statement, which is admittedly quite oversimplified, nevertheless gets at the point that the danger of a substance often depends on the situation — you can die from drinking too much water, for instance. Analogously, when I was reading Pests, I started saying to myself, “the situation makes the pest.” A theme running through the book is that most if not all of these animals we think of as pests are pests because of the conditions we’ve created for them. In fact, many of the animals were originally not thought of as pests at all! Pigeons, the apparent bane of every city, were once highly prized as messenger birds and as food. Once those uses fell out of favor, so did the birds. Bethany’s book is filled with examples like this. Furthermore, many animals can be seen as pests by some, and be beloved by others. Wolves that are revered on t-shirts of suburban teens area menace to the livestock of rural farmers.

In the end, eliminating “pests” is an impossible task, because even if we can banish one nuisance species from our sight, another will inevitably move in to take advantage of whatever opportunity we have left open for them. So Pests explores the various ways that wildlife researchers are working to help us coexist with those animals that we seem to hate. Indigenous knowledge is given a lot of attention in the book, as native groups often have time-tested knowledge of how to deal with those creatures that would intrude upon our spaces.

You may have noticed that it took me a while to get around to reading this book, which came out in December of last year. I was a little hesitant to get started on it, because I have a weird affection for most vertebrate animals and hate to read stories where they might suffer; in addition, I tend to be a little queasy when reading nasty biological stuff about parasites and disease and dissections. Bethany manages to talk matter-of-factly about these issues without dwelling on them or making the reader too uncomfortable, for which I am very grateful! (I had similar challenges when writing my Falling Felines book, in which I had to discuss experimentation on cats but didn’t want to horrify the reader.)

One other theme struck me while reading Pests, and that is the parallel between those animals we define as pests and those humans that our society often treats the same way. It is almost impossible to read a story about a homeless woman caring for pigeons without seeing that both the human and the bird suffer from our unreasonable expectations of them. Descriptions of urbanites moving out into rural areas and irritating the locals with their demands sound very much like descriptions of invasive species. So I felt that, intentional or not, Pests has something to say about the way we treat each other. With this in mind, I was very struck by this quote from Marshall, a Lakota elder from the Sicangu tribe, about wolves:

We coexisted. That did not necessarily mean that we were always please with one another. But it did mean that we always respected one another’s right to be.

You wouldn’t necessarily think that a book dedicated to a lot of animals that anger us and/or scare us and/or make our skin crawl would provide a lot of things to think about. But I found Pests to be a really thoughtful book with many new insights for me, and one that gave me a new perspective on humans and our place in nature. I highly recommend it!

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