“Isn’t she beautiful?” said Bethany Brookshire as she admired passersby from a park bench in New York City. “Hey beauty.”
The object of her attention, parading past on a cold autumn day, had white feathers on her head and a blanket of slate gray covering her body. A flash of white interrupted the gray down at her tail feathers. Brookshire was admiring a pigeon.
“I have no idea,” she added, “if she really is a she.”
Brookshire, an author and science journalist, really likes pigeons. She is also very fond of mice and rats, deer and snakes, and is fascinated by all the ways they drive people crazy. Her new book, “Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains,” published by Ecco on Tuesday, explores our relationship with and responsibility to the animals that live around us, who nibble on our leftovers and burrow into our gardens.
In some cases, animals became what we consider vermin because humans took them outside their natural habitats – like the rabbits we brought to Australia so we could hunt them, or the cats we brought everywhere so they could hunt on our behalf – and they adapted in ways we hadn’t counted on.
In other cases, Brookshire argues, what makes them pests is our state of mind.
“Every city has its rat,” Brookshire said. “In some places it’s a lizard, in some places it’s a mouse, in some places it’s a Burmese python. Each location has an animal they hate, an animal that drives them crazy.”
Jonathan Richardson, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Richmond who served as an expert reader of “Pests,” said that every species Brookshire highlights in the book is just trying to eat, reproduce and survive. survive. But those pursuits intersect with our lives in ways we dislike or find harmful.
“There’s also some irony in how we look at pests,” he said, “since other species would certainly characterize homo sapiens as having some of the same traits that mark pests as pests.”
To report on her book, Brookshire went hunting for Burmese pythons in the Florida Everglades and discovered how hard they are to find: one way to kill a few in one night is to equip a snake with a tracking device and hoping he joins a snake orgy. On another expedition, Brookshire kept a baby bear in her coat while the mother napped nearby, after she was shot with a dart gun loaded with anesthetic as part of a tagging effort to track bears in populated areas.
She found that lions smell horrible, like “zebras dead for three days.” She also found that there are wild horses called “brumbies” in Australia, and that some conservation biologists want them shot down from helicopters because they stomp all over the alpine bogs.
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“I love how all these animals around us have had success,” Brookshire said. “It’s not just that they’re struggling around us. They have made it active. They have benefited. Like these pigeons, they are still there even after we decided we didn’t like them anymore. And they say, ‘You know what? Unfortunately.'”
The birds we sometimes call “rats with wings” won medals for bravery and carried on correspondence during the early days of modern journalism, Brookshire said. Pigeons — technically rock pigeons — were probably domesticated at least 5,000 years ago and are still surprisingly comfortable around humans.
So while sitting in Father Demo Square, in Manhattan’s West Village, last month, Brookshire took advantage. She leaned forward and took a pigeon in her hands.
The pigeon looked tense, perhaps a little startled. But it didn’t struggle. It never turned its head to peck at her fingers. It stared straight ahead, its orange eyes slightly bulging, waiting to be released.
“A pigeon – even if it has never been held in its life – somewhere deep inside is used to being held,” Brookshire writes in “Pests.”
Pigeons were brought to America to be eaten and were raised on many rooftops in New York City until the practice was banned in 1930. Pigeons foraged for food during the day and then returned to their rooftop shelter at night. This kept them street-smart, so if they were abandoned, they could still survive on their own.
It also means that now when they eat birdseed from your hand they are gentle. A few dozen jockeyed for position in a scrum, pecking Brookshire’s palm. Not a single bird has left a trace.
“They’re domesticated,” she said. “I literally just picked one up and held it, and they came right back.”
“For those who don’t live with elephants, it’s easy to think that the only human-elephant conflict there could be is the kind that humans commit, the kind that poach these beautiful creatures for their oversized incisors,” Brookshire wrote. “But elephants are also living tanks, capable of killing, bursting open guts, knocking down houses and eating a farmer’s entire harvest during the season. Conflicts between humans and elephants can go either way.”
In some countries, elephants can pose a serious threat to the lives and livelihoods of those who live in close proximity, and Brookshire documented several creative strategies for keeping them at bay.
For example: bees. Elephants really don’t like bees.
A tactic used in many countries, including Kenya, relies on surrounding crops with a beehive border. In some cases, the enclosure consists of a mix of real beehives and similar dummy beehives. They are all connected by a thread, which creates a perimeter around the field.
But elephants are smart. Some of them will “knock” on the wire a few times, and if they do not see any bees, they will move around the perimeter in search of food.
Other methods of deterring elephants include pelting them with chili and charcoal balls that burst on impact (they don’t like spices either) and drones, which sound like bees. But the elephants have learned that drones don’t sting, and some have started ripping them out of the sky.
One deterrent that is effective, but rarely practical, Brookshire said: helicopters.
They’re cute and they’re fluffy, if not always cuddly. But cats, Brookshire said, are killers, too. Cats are responsible for the extinction of dozens of species worldwide, and are threatening hundreds more.
In Australia, home to millions of feral cats that have hunted 25 mammal species to extinction, the cats are classed as vermin, meaning they can be — and are — shot, captured and poisoned.
“These extinctions are really our fault,” Brookshire wrote. “We’re the ones who have taken cats to all their new destinations and opened their eyes to new succulent cat treats.”
In much of her book, Brookshire tries to draw such lessons by pointing out that these animals — whether rats eating garbage in New York City or deer trashing a suburban yard — are simply trying to survive. Our job is to decide how best to live with them and minimize the disruptions that inevitably occur when humans and wildlife are around.
As respectful as she tried to be in her book about both the animals and the people who have to live with them, she said she still expects some backlash.
“I know this will make people angry,” she said. “Especially about cats. People get mad about cats.