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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.

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!


Cartagena, Part I

August 18, 2017
Cartagena 2

Getsemani, Cartagena, (c) Megan Draheim, 2017

Last month I was able to travel to beautiful Cartagena, Colombia for the International Congress for Conservation Biology, the Society for Conservation Biology’s biennial international meeting. I’ll be writing more about this soon, but wanted first to link to a post I wrote for my department about it, partially focusing on a presentation I co-wrote for the meeting.

More to come!

Raccoons in Fairlington

July 27, 2017

By Ken Rushia – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

I wrote an article in DCist about raccoon-human conflict in Fairlington, which is in a suburb of DC in Virginia. The complex has an interesting garbage policy: residents leave out their trash in garbage bags only (no trash cans) six days a week, which provides a ready supply of easy meals for all sorts of animals. When wildlife becomes used to the idea that such food supplies are linked closely to human presence, bad things can happen (this also happens from intentional feedings). This can have extremely poor outcomes for both humans (bites, scratches, or worse) and the wildlife (many times animals like that will be captured and killed). Have you ever heard the expression, “a fed bear is a dead bear”? It’s sadly often true. So please don’t feed the wildlife!


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