Is This Elephant Bothering You?
“Isn’t she a beauty?” said Bethany Brookshire as she admired passers-by from a park bench in New York City. “Hello, gorgeous.”
The object of her attention, strutting past on a cold fall day, had white feathers on her head and a blanket of slate gray covering her body. A flash of white interrupted the gray down by her tail feathers. Brookshire was admiring a pigeon.
“I have no idea,” she added, “if she’s really a she.”
Brookshire, an author and science journalist, really likes pigeons. She also really likes 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, examines our relationship with, and our responsibility to, the animals that live around us, nibbling our leftovers and burrowing into our gardens.
In some cases, animals became what we consider pests because humans transported 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 anticipated.
In other instances, Brookshire argues, what makes them pests is our frame of mind.
“Every city has their rat,” Brookshire said. “In some places it is a lizard, in some places it’s a mouse, in some places it’s a Burmese python. Every location has an animal that they hate, an animal that just drives them bonkers.”
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. But those pursuits happen to intersect with our lives in ways we dislike or find damaging.
“There’s also some irony in how we view pests,” he said, “as other species would certainly characterize Homo sapiens as having some of the same traits that mark pests as pests.”
To report her book, Brookshire went hunting for Burmese pythons in the Florida Everglades, and learned how difficult they are to find: One way to kill a few in one night is to outfit a snake with a tracking device and hope it joins a snake orgy. On another expedition, Brookshire held a baby bear in her jacket while its mother snoozed nearby, after being shot with a dart gun loaded with anesthetic as part of an tagging effort to track bears in populated areas.
She discovered that lions smell terrible, like “three-day-dead zebra.” She also found out that in Australia there are feral horses called “brumbies,” and that some conservation biologists want them shot from helicopters because they are stomping all over alpine bogs.
Better Understand Our Mysterious Feline Friends
- Unappreciated Importance: Researchers who work on the genomes of domestic and wild cats say their DNA holds clues to human as well as feline health.
- Outdoor Cats: Some find them charming. Wildlife conservationists and bird lovers see furry killers. Can cats really roam outside without carnage?
- TV for Cats: How do you keep a cat entertained when you live in a tiny apartment with no outdoor space? The answer is on YouTube, where footage of prey in the wild to pique your cat’s curiosity abounds.
- Bonding Moments: Despite their apparent aloofness, new studies are finding that cats can build strong ties with humans, vindicating cat lovers around the world.
“I love how all of these animals have succeeded around us,” Brookshire said. “It’s not just that they’re struggling around us. They have actively made it. They have taken advantage. Like these pigeons, they’re still here, even after we decided we didn’t like them anymore. And they’re like, ‘You know what? Too bad.’”
The birds we sometimes call “rats with wings,” Brookshire said, used to win medals for bravery and ran correspondence during the early days of modern journalism. Pigeons — technically rock doves — were likely domesticated at least 5,000 years ago, and are still surprisingly comfortable with humans.
So while sitting last month in Father Demo Square, in Manhattan’s West Village, Brookshire took advantage. She leaned over and scooped up a pigeon in her hands.
The pigeon looked tense, maybe slightly alarmed. But it didn’t struggle. It never turned its head around to peck at her fingers. It stared straight ahead, with its orange eyes slightly bulged, and waited to be released.
“A pigeon — even if it’s never been held in its life — is, somewhere deep down in its makeup, used to being held,” Brookshire writes in “Pests.”
Brought to the Americas to be eaten, pigeons were raised on many rooftops in New York City until the practice was banned in 1930. Pigeons would forage for food during the day and then come back to their rooftop lodgings for the night. This kept them street-smart, so when they were abandoned, they could still survive on their own.
It also means that now, when they eat birdseed out of your hand, they’re gentle. A few dozen jockeyed for position in a scrum, pecking away at Brookshire’s palm. Not one bird left a mark.
“They are domesticated,” she said. “I literally just picked up and held one, and they’ve come 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 perpetrate, the kind that poaches these beautiful creatures for their oversized incisors,” Brookshire wrote. “But elephants are also living tanks, capable of killing, disemboweling, knocking down houses, and eating a farmer’s entire crop for the season. Human-elephant conflict can go both ways.”
In some countries, elephants can pose serious threats to the lives and livelihoods of those who live nearby, and Brookshire documented several creative strategies to keep the them at bay.
For example: bees. Elephants really, really don’t like bees.
One tactic used in many countries, including Kenya, relies on surrounding crops with a border of beehives. In some cases, the enclosure is composed of a mix of real beehives and similar looking dummy beehives. They’re all connected by a wire, which creates a perimeter around the field.
But elephants are smart. Some of them will “knock” on the wire a couple of times, and if they don’t see any bees, they’ll brush right past the perimeter looking for dinner.
Other methods of elephant dissuasion involve pelting them with balls of chili and charcoal that burst on impact (they don’t like spice, either) and drones, which sound like bees. But the elephants have learned that drones don’t sting, and some have started trying to yank them out of the sky.
One deterrent that is effective, if rarely practical, Brookshire said: helicopters.
They are cute and they are fluffy, if not always cuddly. But cats, Brookshire said, are also killers. Cats are responsible for the extinction of dozens of species globally, and they threaten hundreds more.
In Australia, home to millions of feral cats that have hunted 25 mammal species to extinction, the cats are designated pests, which means they can be — and are — shot, trapped and poisoned.
“These extinctions are really our fault,” Brookshire wrote. “We are the ones who brought cats to all their new destinations, opening their eyes to novel, succulent cat snacks.”
In much of her book, Brookshire tries to draw such lessons, pointing out that these animals — whether they’re rats eating trash in New York City or deer destroying a suburban garden — are just trying to survive. It is our job to decide how best to live with them and minimize the disruptions that inevitably come when humans and wildlife exist in proximity.
As respectful as she tried to be in her book of both the animals and the humans who must live with them, she said she still expects some blowback.
“I know this is going to make people mad,” she said. “Especially about cats. People get riled about cats.”