Skip to content

Moral Communities and “Pests” (Part IV)

May 22, 2018

Welcome to the last post in our four-part series on “pests”! (You can find parts one, two, and three here).

We’ve so far discussed the mechanisms with which people frame animals as pests, vermin, or nuisances, but why do we bother in the first place? Framing animals as such can serve as a distancing mechanism to make it easier for a person to dismiss the agency of that animal, despise it, and perhaps even kill it (Jerolmack, 2008).

We can use the term “moral exclusion” as short-hand to describe this phenomenon. Moral exclusion is a process where:

…individuals or groups are perceived as outside the boundary in which moral values, rules, and considerations of fairness apply [emphasis original]. Those who are morally excluded are perceived as nonentities, expendable, or undeserving; consequently, harming them appears acceptable, appropriate, or just” (Opotow, 1990, p. 1).

On the other hand, moral inclusion: “refers to relationships in which the parties are approximately equal, the potential for reciprocity exists, and both parties are entitled to fair processes and some share of community resources” (Opotow 1990, p. 2).

So while some people include neighborhood wildlife (animals that are often labeled “pests”) in their moral community, others do not, using the “pest” label to distance themselves further from those animals so they can control them however they want (often including lethal control).

While traditionally in Western cultures only humans were included in moral communities (although some individuals would extend this at least a bit further to include pets and some other domestic animals), this assumption has been challenged periodically, especially in recent decades. For example, Peter Singer (1975) was an early proponent of the idea that cognitive awareness was more important than species when assigning membership to a moral community – most animals deserve fair treatment and the ability to live, he argued. Earlier yet, Aldo Leopold (1949) proposed that entire ecosystems – both the biotic and abiotic components – deserved inclusion in our moral communities.

Moral inclusion and exclusion are defined at least in part by culture. Let’s consider whaling. Currently, North Americans are by and large adamantly anti-whaling, and there are many campaigns devoted to decrying Japan’s continued whaling programs. However, whaling was until relatively recently a vital part of the economy in some regions of the United States. But over time culture (and the economy) changed, and today many North Americans include cetaceans in their moral communities (Opotow 1990).

photography of whale tail in body of water

Photo by Daniel Ross on

Opotow (2003) described the importance of moral inclusion when dealing with conservation issues in general. She found that feeling disconnected to nature, seeing it (or wildlife) as a threat, denial of harm, and denial of the rights of others (human and non-human) to resources (think back to our example of fish being “stolen” by seals) results in the moral exclusion of nature and wildlife. Also relevant to conservation issues (and certainly to many discussions of humans and urban wildlife), conflict tends to reinforce group boundaries and decrease concern for those outside the community (Opotow, 1990).

If animals labeled “pests” are typically defined as being outside the moral community, when human-wildlife conflict (both real and perceived) increases, individuals and the neighborhood or city at large will be less likely to consider the fairness of their actions towards these animals. Likewise, perceived similarity can shape moral inclusion and exclusion (Opotow, 1990).

This relates to our coyote example from part three. When human-coyote conflict increased in my study site outside of Denver, some people excluded coyotes from their moral community (or rather continued to exclude them, as it’s likely that coyotes were never part of their moral community to begin with!), and used the distancing mechanism inherent in the “pest” label to justify lethal control. On the other hand, people who did not think lethal control should be used included coyotes in their moral community, in part by embracing perceived similarities (coyotes belong in the area, they possess positive traits such as monogamy and sharing in family responsibilities, they are intelligent and adaptable, just like humans, and so on).

As we’ve seen, the “pest” label is very powerful. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series and found it useful, and that next time you hear terms such as pest, vermin, and nuisance animals you’ll stop to think about it a bit! If you’ve enjoyed this series, I hope you’ll stay tuned to this blog for more.

Literature Cited

Jerolmack, C. (2008). How pigeons became rats: The cultural-spatial logic of problem animals. Social Problems, 55(1), 72-94.

Leopold, Aldo. (1949). A Sand County Almanac. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Opotow, S. (1990). Moral exclusion and injustice: An introduction. Journal of Social Issues, 46(1), 1-20.

Opotow, S. (2003). What makes people care? Moral inclusion and conservation psychology. Human Ecology Review, 10(2), 166-167.

Singer, P. (1975). Animal liberation. New York, NY: Harper.

This series was in part based on my dissertation, Social Conflict and Human-Coyote Interactions in Suburban Denver. You can find my full dissertation (all 232 pages of it!) here.

The Human Side of “Pests” (Part III)

May 15, 2018


For the third installment of our “pest” series (see here for parts one and two), I’d like to take an example from my own work to examine how people not only saddle animals with negative human characteristics in order to justify labeling them as pests, but also how people who are involved on different sides in human-wildlife conflict issues also label each other, in part with the same effect. Human-wildlife conflict could in many cases be more descriptively called conflict between humans about wildlife, and we’ll see that playing out in this case study.

I did research in the Denver, Colorado metropolitan area to explore coyote-human interactions, specifically in two adjacent suburbs that had differing takes on what coyote management should look like (one using lethal control more liberally than the other). There’s a lot that’s interesting about this particular case study, but sticking with the theme of this blog series let’s take a look at social constructionism. In the last post, we talked how people construct pests: calling some animals “murderers,” “criminals,” “thieves,” and “killers” when describing animals that, for example, eat fish that fishermen consider to be theirs; linking animals to social problems (or perceptions of problems) to justify killing or otherwise removing them; or accusing the animals of not belonging to the area in question. And this was true at my study sites as well: coyotes were labeled with all sorts of negative handles by those who believed lethal control was the answer, and/or were believed to not belong in an urban/suburban area. Conversely, those who disagreed with using lethal control on coyotes labeled them with positive human traits (they’re monogamous, have strong family ties) and stressed that they are native to the region.

(Throughout I’ll be using the terms anti-lethal control and pro-lethal control. Of course, the situation was more nuanced than that. Some anti-lethal control advocates felt that there were situations that lethal control would be appropriate — for example, when a specific coyote was targeted after displaying aggressive behavior to a person. And some pro-lethal control advocates felt that there were times lethal control was not appropriate – for example, when a coyote pup was present.)

*IMG_1056 copy

Cherry Creek State Park and housing developments. This park bordered the study site.

First up, let’s look at how people define their and each other’s actions. Perhaps not so surprisingly given the subject matter at hand, language describing or evoking violence was common.

People who were pro-lethal control tended to use “good war” imagery, portraying their efforts to advocate for lethal control as fighting in an honorable way to protect their land, property, and family from the enemy (in this case, coyotes). People who were anti-lethal control, on the other hand, described the pro-lethal contingent in language evocative of criminality, accusing them of murder, slaughtering innocents, and cruelty – in other words, a dishonorable fight. The difference in descriptive language is analogous to that between a soldier fighting to protect his/her country and a thug mugging someone on the street.

Because some of my other research in these two towns showed a correlation between fear of coyotes and desire for lethal control, it makes sense that people who are pro-lethal control feel that they are protecting their families (human and non-human) when they support lethal control and/or eradication efforts. While we might argue in this country about “good” or justified wars over “bad” or unjustified wars, there is a general understanding that violence in wartime is different from violence in peacetime or violence committed at home. In addition, we tend to separate our dissatisfaction or disagreement over a war from our respect for those who serve in the military. Protecting our homeland—whether that is defined broadly as the United States or more narrowly as our property—is seen an honorable endeavor, and therefore the violence committed over these goals is different than common street violence. Letters to the editor and op-eds about lethal control in the Denver metro area included language like this, saying residents had “declared war” on coyotes, and that government officials had to “take sides” (coyote or human), that it was time Denver metro residents “fought back,” and that coyotes had already “lost the battle for habitat,” and so should move on.

On the other hand, those opposed to lethal control tended to use negative descriptions of violence. Instead of wars, they used criminal and illegal violence descriptions, and portrayed the situation as being out of control and lawless. One LTE called private sharpshooters hired by one of the towns “vigilantes,” and a Denver Post editorial states that the town’s “shoot-to-kill” coyote plan would not, in fact, work, as lethal control programs are not effective in reducing conflict in the long-run, stating: “So much for the bang-bang Wild West theory.” One LTE outright said that “killing coyotes is a cruel and unnecessary crime.”

Language matters. Invoking war-time and street-violence language when discussing human-coyote conflict and the subsequent social conflict helps to frame the discussion in black-and-white arguments. By framing the conflict in this way, stakeholders can more easily dismiss the other side as conventional wisdom would suggest that people who willfully commit illegal and immoral acts of violence should not be negotiated with, and likewise that people who stand in the way of lawful and moral acts of violence committed in order to protect hearth and home should not be respected.

Not only did the different factions in this debate label each other’s actions as good or bad, they also applied labels to each other, dismissing their beliefs and chalking them up to negative characteristics. In this way, anti-lethal advocates said that those advocating for lethal control were cold-blooded, spoiled, entitled, and arrogant, expecting the local government to take care of the coyote “problem.” One person I interviewed said that they “don’t want coyotes mucking up their life. They don’t want anything mucking up their life.” Some anti-lethal control advocates also believed that pro-lethal believers were unethical and lacked moral values and empathy.

On the other hand, some of those who wanted to use lethal control in more situations believed that the anti-lethal control contingent were unfeeling in their own right by not empathizing or understanding their fear of coyotes. One person I interviewed recalled a public meeting where the anti-lethal control speakers expressed little sympathy when a woman described a moment when her two children got off the bus and were reportedly followed by a coyote. The same person said that “my worst nightmare is to have my little dog taken by a coyote,” and argued that the anti-lethal control camp does not understand or acknowledge that concern. One person I interviewed said: “I wonder if any of the people that don’t want lethal control had their child or their animal attacked. Or threatened.” Some referred to anti-lethal control advocates as “tree-huggers” or “coyote-huggers,” and considered them to be extremists who put animals’ lives and well-being above humans.

While there were many people who struck a more moderate tone in this debate, the discussion became very polarized. Some respondents suggested that the people most involved in the conflict on both sides made assumptions about each other, and were hostile and not on speaking terms. These advocates constructed versions of each other and themselves in order to justify this, just as people use the word “pest” to justify their behavior towards animals. Here, applying the “pest” label to a species was hotly contested, which demonstrates both the power of the label (both sides knew what was at stake) and the conflict defining animals as such can cause.

For the last part of this series, we’ll be taking a look at why exactly the use of the “pest” label enables people to dismiss individuals and entire species of animals.

*IMG_1081 copy

Cherry Creek State Park

How to Construct a Pest (Part II)

April 20, 2018

In the first post of this series we talked about how what makes a “pest” a pest is in the eye of the beholder. In this post we’re going to examine this a bit more closely by looking at some of the mechanisms people use to direct the conversation about a particular species: language, names, and ascribing human characteristics to non-human animals. Some of these examples are set in urban landscapes, some in rural, but all are illustrative of how people create pests – because pest is a human construct; an animal is not born a pest, we label it as such.


  • Goedeke (2005) studied opposition to a river otter reintroduction plan in Missouri. Most people who opposed the plan did so because they believed that otters would eat the fish that they themselves wanted (in fish ponds, rivers, etc.). The opposition sought to convince the public and officials that fish were more important than otters, but also framed otters as problematic by ascribing them with negative human characteristics: because otters ate fish, they were competitors, criminals, murderers, thieves, and (finally) vermin. The anti-otter contingent granted the animals agency by suggesting that they not only knew what they were doing, but knew that what they were doing was wrong. On the other hand, the pro-otter contingent portrayed otters as ecologically and recreationally valuable, playful animals. By seeking to define both the problem and otters, the anti-otter side gained some currency in the Missouri agency working on the recovery so that, although the agency recognized the ecological importance of otters, they also said that otters could become pests. Because of this, a trapping season was seen as a viable management strategy; those who successfully defined the problem (otters as pests) defined the solution.


  • Rachel Sprague and I (2015) described how Hawaiian monk seals (a critically endangered marine mammal found only in the Hawaiian islands) are sometimes seen as pests by native Hawaiians who do not believe that the seals are native to the inhabited part of the island chain (monk seals have more recently recolonized these islands after being historically killed off). Perhaps in part because they are devalued by being labeled non-native, the monk seals are also saddled with the label of criminal: the seals steal fish that belong to native Hawaiian fishers. (This particular issue is more deeply complex as it also feeds into issues of colonization and cultural appropriation – topics worthy of discussion but beyond the scope of this particular series of posts).
Hawaiian Monk Seal

Hawaiian Monk Seal, Anthony Quintano at


  • I’ve already talked about pigeons (a perennial example of a “pest” animal, made even more so since they are feral and not a native species), but it’s worth mentioning again the excellent work Jerolmack (2008) did looking at the changing discourse around pigeons in newspaper articles over about a century. The pigeons as pests narrative started in the 1930’s, when they were linked through language with human social “problems” of the day, such as homosexuals, drunks, and the homeless (of course labels like this are themselves problematic).


  • Another historical bird example involves sparrows. Fine and Christoforides (1991) described the “English Sparrow War,” where the non-native English sparrows were metaphorically linked with the “problem” of immigration (again, labeling immigration a social problem is problematic itself!).


  • Of course, sometimes even those who are seeking to conserve a species perhaps inadvertently devalue another animal. For example, Campion-Vincent (2005) reported that some nature protection agencies, while attempting to convince people that wolves were not a major threat to sheep in the French Alps, blamed feral and stray dogs for many of the attacks attributed to wolves by calling the dogs “murderers.”

By assigning negative human characteristics to animals (they’re criminals, murderers, killers), believing them to be aware that what they do is illegal/immoral, and linking them metaphorically to hot social and political topics, people can successfully define what is a pest. Those who win at making those claims and creating those definitions often get to steer the conversation about managing those species, although this is not always true (again, we get back to the example of Mexican wolves as ecologically valuable vs. pests; here we can add the example of Hawaiian monk seals as valued from a conservation perspective vs. criminal non-native invaders). However, even if management doesn’t initially follow after someone or a group succeeds in labeling an animal a pest, that label can help exacerbate and continue conflict and disagreement over the management of the species or population.

Next up in part three of this series, we’ll have an example from my own work with coyotes (it always comes back to coyotes for me!), where people not only label coyotes but also each other – all of which created a complex urban human-wildlife conflict situation.


Campion-Vincent, V. (2005). The restoration of wolves in France: Story, conflicts, and uses of rumor. In A. Herda-Rapp & T. L. Goedeke (Eds.), Mad about wildlife: Looking at social conflict over wildlife (99-122). Boston: Brill.

Fine, G. A. & Christoforides, L. (1991). Dirty birds, filthy immigrants, and the English Sparrow War: Metaphorical linkage in constructing social problems. Symbolic Interaction, 14(4), 375-393.

Goedeke, T. L. (2005). Devils, angels or animals: The social construction of otters in conflict over management. In A. Herda-Rapp & T. Goedeke (Eds). Mad about wildlife: Looking at social conflict over wildlife (pp. 25-50). Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.

Jerolmack, C. (2008). How pigeons became rats: The cultural-spatial logic of problem animals. Social Problems, 55(1), 72-94.

Sprague, R. S. & Draheim, M. M. (2015). Hawaiian monk seals: Labels, names, and stories in conflict. In M. M. Draheim, F. Madden, J. B. McCarthy, and E. C. M. Parsons (Eds). Human-Wildlife Conflict: Complexity in the Marine Environment (pp. 117-136). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Pests and Varmints and Vermin, Oh My (Part I)

April 10, 2018

Today I saw a tweet from our fabulous local wildlife rehab center, City Wildlife, of a baby opossum who was brought in after he was attacked by a cat. The picture was predictably adorable, so I went to read the comments, curious what people would say as I know some people decidedly do not think that opossums, baby or not, are adorable.


(Not the same baby opossum, but still cute in my book!)

@GinsuCajun wrote: “Opossum are varmints and are shot on sight, here in Texas. They kill poultry and small pets. Interesting how they’re viewed differently, geographically.” This observation was followed by several comments that were not quite as politic or insightful, but making the point that they think opossums are pests.

So I’d like to talk about a few words: varmint, pest, vermin, and “trash animals.” They’re bandied about quite frequently, and deserve a closer look especially because so many native animals found in urban areas are sometimes grouped into this category. “Pest” is a powerful label, able to demote the importance of the existence of an entire species, or even to make it desirable to eradicate the species.

Species labeled pests are often given little consideration beyond how to control their numbers and behavior so as to not interfere with humans. At times, they are even excluded from research into human-wildlife conflict; for example, a 2009 review of human-felid conflict defined human-wildlife conflict as “the situation that arises when behavior of a non-pest, wild animal species poses a direct and recurring threat to the livelihood or safety of a person or a community and, in response, persecution of the species ensues” (emphasis added). However, this potentially excludes a large number of important members of an ecosystem from consideration. It also leaves unanswered the process by which a species becomes defined as a pest. Certainly many ranchers in the American southwest would consider the Mexican wolf to be a pest, and yet in the conservation biology and wildlife management communities the species is considered a valuable and highly endangered species.

A while back I discussed the concept of “pest” as related to pigeons and geography, arguing that one of the reasons animals are labeled pests is when they’re seen as out of place. In other words, wildlife that does what wildlife is “supposed” to do – stay out of human-dominated landscapes – is fine, but once it crosses the border between a rural area and a suburban area (or a “wild” area and an agricultural field, for that matter) it becomes a pest. The problem with this is that it artificially separates humans from nature and assumes that cities are not natural – and by extension that humans are not natural and not part of nature. This binary worldview is ingrained in much of the world, but ignores the reality that humans are indeed part of nature, as are our cities and the non-human animals, plants, and microbes that share these environments. Natural processes occur in cities just as they do outside of cities; for example, we’re seeing evolution in action with many urban species (there’s a new book, Darwin Comes to Town by Menno Schilthuizen, that discusses this at length. It’s sitting on my desk and I haven’t started reading it yet, but you might want to check it out!).

There’s a great quote that’s often attributed to Margaret Mead (I believe that there’s some uncertainty about who actually said it, but it’s still a great quote): Cities are to humans what hives are to bees and dens are to foxes. This can probably be interpreted in many different ways, but to me it’s a reminder that we are indeed a part of nature, as are our shelters and other creations.

Next in this series we’ll talk about how humans sometimes attribute human characteristics to animals and how that can help form narratives about pests!


Who Doesn’t Love a Good Octopus Story?

March 27, 2018
(c) Azcheal via Flickr Commons

(c) Azcheal via Flickr Commons

Terrestrial mesopredators in urban areas (think raccoons, foxes, etc.) have been well-studied over the years, but less so in marine systems. A team of researchers from various institutions in Washington state sought to reduce this gap in our knowledge by studying the giant Pacific octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) in Puget Sound.

In general, urban ecology research has focused more on terrestrial systems and less on marine, so it’s great to see good research out there trying to remedy this. If you’re interested in urban ecology, have access to a coast, and want a good research project, there are almost endless possibilities in marine systems.

The authors used research questions in line with much of what we’ve found with terrestrial mesopredators in urban areas: were they distributed differently in urban vs. rural systems; was abundance related to the amount of manmade debris; and did diet change in urban areas. The researchers found that octopus potentially used urbanized features and made use of urban resources in different ways than terrestrial mesopredators do.

Part of this is likely due to the fact that an octopus is quite different than a raccoon, but part of it also has to do with the added dimension that marine life lives in. Urbanization, as it turns out, appears to influence the depth at which these octopus hang out; in Puget Sound, they stay at deeper depths than in nearby rural areas. It’s unclear why this is true. Maybe it’s because there’s a concentration of predators such as seals and sea lions in urban areas, and so octopus are driven to greater depths to avoid them. Or, maybe it’s because octopus are less able to deal with shallow water conditions in urban areas (either because of the influence of the cities themselves, or because they’re located at river heads where salinity and temperature might be different) so they stay at greater depths to avoid these problems.

Octopus abundance was greater where there was more manmade debris on the floor of the Sound. It might be that the greater concentration of such debris is what makes it possible for octopus to live in urban areas, as cities often grow near the mouths of rivers or in estuaries where the substrate is soft and so lacks protection. The authors acknowledge, however, that some of their findings might be influenced by their methodology because of diver search patterns, so more research around this question is likely necessary.

However, unlike most terrestrial mesopredators, octopus diet did not seem to change in urban vs. rural areas. This is a big area of research in the terrestrial community (how does the diet of a coyote change from rural to urban settings, for example), so it’s interesting that in this case diet did not appear to be influenced by urbanization.

Much is left to be discovered about marine mesopredators in urban systems, but this study goes a long way towards both answering and delineating those questions! Hopefully we’ll see more research like this in the future.

Here, Eliza C., Olsen, Amy Y., Feist, Blake E., and Sebens, Kenneth P. 2018. Urbanization-related distribution patterns and habitat-use by the marine mesopredator, giant Pacific octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini). Urban Ecosystems:

New Year’s Resolutions

January 28, 2018

Goldenrod and snow in my patch of the world, (c) Megan Draheim, 2017

It’s January, the season we make promises to ourselves about how we’ll live a better life in the coming year. Most of our resolutions focus on our own wellbeing: exercising, eating better, meditating, or cracking an unhealthy habit, for example.

I’d like to offer a slightly different take. Why not promise yourself the gift of creating a more biodiverse world? It satisfies what seems to be one of the major criteria of resolutions, making yourself healthier (there’s abundant literature out there that suggests being around nature is good for you, physically and mentally), but also makes your city (and even the world) a better place, both for people and for wildlife.

So what is this promise I’d ask you to consider as part of your yearly self-analysis? Plant more native plants in your yard or whatever outdoor space you can access. Obviously not all city-dwellers have a yard, but there are other options here: a balcony, a windowsill, lobbying your building to change the plantings in its public outdoor spaces (tree boxes, front walks, etc.), a community garden plot (or, even better, convince the community garden board to set aside one plot or the outside edge of the garden for a native pollinator garden in perpetuity), a corner of your children’s schoolyard, lobbying your city to let you use a corner of the local pocket park – possibilities abound.

This isn’t to say that every bit of turf should be dug up. Instead, take an objective inventory of the space in question. Is all of the lawn actually used? For sitting in, playing in, whatever? If not (and I’m betting much of it is not), consider turning that into a native planting bed. Not only will this help local wildlife (for example, by boosting native insect populations you provide many native birds with more food), but it has the side benefit of reducing the carbon footprint and other environmental impacts of your outdoor space (gas powered lawn mowers become irrelevant, and you don’t use as much – or even any – fertilizer, resulting in less run-off to your local waterways, for example).

There’s something about acting as stewards of our little piece of the world – however little – that is inspiring. You’re committing yourself to care about your local ecosystem and all that lives in it. You’re spending your own resources (time, money) on caring for the world in a tangible way. Watching native bees buzz around your patch of goldenrod is a wonderful thing, when you’re the reason the goldenrod is there in the first place.

And besides all of that, you just might end up with less lawn to mow. Maybe that gives you more time this summer to follow through on one of your other resolutions?

Happy New Year, everyone.

Coyotes in DC

September 20, 2017
Coyote Portrait

Coyote, (c) Matt Knoth via Wikimedia Commons

I recently wrote an article for on living with coyotes in Washington, D.C. Check it out!


%d bloggers like this: