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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.)

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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.

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Cherry Creek State Park

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