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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.

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