On Killing “Pest” Species: Where do you draw the line?

In India and Nepal, rats are less associated with dirtiness and disease than in the U.S. and are in this case allowed to roam freely in a temple. They are, on the other hand, more likely to be eaten.

When does it become justifiable to kill individuals merely because the species they belong to is associated with disease or property damage and the entire species (unless kept by humans) may thus be marked “dangerous (to humans)”? I think that wild animals in general are associated with disease and illness, and understandably so, but why is it that when we talk about wild dogs, cats, squirrels, and various others, the visceral response is “stay away,” while for mice and especially rats it is “kill it!”?

I thought this was just a non-vegan thing, but I have discovered through discussion on a vegan forum that many and perhaps even the majority of vegans believe that killing is the only solution for the problem of discovering a rat in one’s house. I was quite surprised to see how bent others in the discussion were on arguing against any other possible solution. Although I am open to considering various perspectives – yes, even killing – I found this commitment to the act of killing a bit much for a vegan forum (I have since lost interest in vegan forums generally, as those I used no longer resonate so well with the more critically-oriented commitment of my own).

Eventually, I would like to do some in-depth research on rats, juxtaposed against some information about other wild animals. Are rats really as dangerous as society seems to believe? How are rats and other wild animal species socially constructed? I did some preliminary Google research, and it does appear that rats carry very high rates of dangerous (to humans) diseases, but don’t other wild animals as well? Of course, the risk in presenting the information thus is that society simply adds the association to the other animals along with the same stigma.

In an article titled “The Cougar’s Tale,” Andrea Gullo, Unna Lassiter, and Jennifer Wolch (from Animal Geographies) unravel the story of cougar-human relations in Orange County. Here, the authors explain based on thorough research how various groups from the Orange County area have expressed desire to kill cougars, which in reality have hardly harmed any humans at all. Nevertheless, for the sake of cougars and humans alike, it is argued that, instead of killing cougars, they should simply be taught to associate humans with fear and stay away.

"A leopard walks with a tranquilizer dart hanging from its neck, in the residential area of Jyotikuchi in Guwahati, the capital city of the northeastern state of Assam, India on March 15, 2009. Three people were mauled by the leopard after the cat strayed into the city before it was tranquilized by forestry department officials. The full grown male leopard was wandering through a part of the densely populated city when curious crowds startled the animal, a wildlife official said. (BIJU BORO/AFP/Getty Images)"

However, this case study reveals the need for in-depth (case) studies regarding other species and places. What about disease-bearing animals versus perceived-to-be or previously aggressive animals, i.e. leopards in India or poisonous snakes in one’s home/yard? What if there are small children around versus not? I remember when I was a kid, we’d often get snakes in the yard, and my dad would typically take a machete and chop off their heads. My mom was bitten once in the foot and ended up in the hospital, but she had been wearing sandals in the woods (and pointing a BB gun at my dad, incidentally). Do “privileged” humans have a duty, or rather a responsibility (as defined by H.E.A.L.T.H.), to take precautions like proper footwear so as to protect animal life? I am really finding Adam’s definitions helpful here:

responsibility (contextual response)
vs morality (fixed system)

etiquette (everyday attentive care)
vs ethics (special code of conduct)

Honestly, I think I would draw a line somewhere, and yet life doesn’t seem to be so principled as that. What do you think? I am interested in hearing other opinions and arguments.

By the way, I just discovered this organization called Mice and Rat Rights that I would like to share because I would not have found it had I not seen the URL advertised at the Animal Rights Conference.


~ by Louëlla on August 19, 2010.

5 Responses to “On Killing “Pest” Species: Where do you draw the line?”

  1. This is a great post. Human-animal conflict is something very much on my mind right now. I’ve relocated to a rural context in the last year where mice (and less so, rats) are a constant possibility and worry. They are a worry because they get in to one’s home, gnaw things, poop on things, etc. But they also provoke a knee-jerk reaction in me that I am striving to overcome: hatred. I feel violated and angry when I find out that there have been so-called ‘pests’ in the house. At times I do feel murderous towards these creatures. And it’s a completely nonsensical emotion: these animals are merely doing what they do best as opportunists, and as beings who love the comfort of homes as much as we do!

    Should we really blame (and kill) these animals for taking advantage of the ideal conditions that we have created? Should we not take responsibility, if we don’t want to have mice and rats in our homes, of making sure that homes and landscapes are designed to not be inviting for rodents – for example by making sure one’s building envelope is sealed and secured, so there are no crannies for easy entry? Isn’t prevention a lot easier?

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the mindset that designates animals as ‘pests’, and the unfortunate and lethal burden that the animals face as a result. At the same time, I don’t think it’s ideal to have to share our living quarters with animals which do spread disease, eat our food, and gnaw at structures, wires and so on. But it is our responsibility to make sure that houses aren’t open invitations to these beings. And we should question that knee-jerk response of hatred; after all we’re the ones who have plunked down houses and roads in what would otherwise have been their territories – their forests, their fields, their burrows.

    As to vegans advocating the killing of rodents, I suppose there is a lot of self-interrogation left to do; we grow up with assumptions and mindsets about animals which are hard to overcome. I stand against killing mice in my own home, and I’m working on solutions at the design level to make sure they don’t get in in the first place, and also to install repellants such as strong essential oils to discourage their interest. I had to spray pyrethrin on two wasp nests which had started inside our walls; even that left me feeling a little desolate. Again they aren’t beings “out to get us”, but simply animals finding good opportunities – which, logically and self-interestedly, they exploit.

    • I really appreciate your honesty with regard to your feelings, as well as your willingness to question such feelings. Hatred is socially constructed.

      Rats are evidently more of a possibility here in the city, where they roam freely across campus and have been seen individually around the house. At one point there was a student group on Facebook called “I hate rats!” or something like that and demanding they all be killed. Then there was a Facebook group called “Rats are Hoyas, too” (Hoyas are what we call students at my university) to say that they are part of the community, too (much like the student work to get security officers, janitors, etc. treated as part of the community). It was good to see that not only the vegans/vegetarians on campus cared about rats!

      “I don’t think it’s ideal to have to share our living quarters with animals which do spread disease, eat our food, and gnaw at structures, wires and so on.”
      Agreed. And it’s difficult – they follow us because we have similar diets (didn’t humans evolve from rodents? 😉 ). From what I read, educated governments dealing with rats try to make efforts at prevention first and foremost, reducing rat population and so on – it’s more effective and means no dealing with potentially dangerous corpses in one’s house either. Citizens often ignore such measures, however, and the governments continue to support extermination.

      If you do deal with any rats, mice, or larger animals in your house, I’d love to hear about how you manage it. You might be interested in my post on Havahart Animal Traps and Repellents. Better yet, you might check out Riddex Plus, which is a sonar repellent. I haven’t tested any of these things myself, but they sound promising.

  2. […] to keep certain animals (and humans) out, and they fail.  Thus you have white flight and so-called pests and weeds.  Black people still move to the suburbs.  We are still sharing houses with rats, mice, […]

  3. Thanks for the post, Luella. I would argue that comparing rats to cougars in our reactions to them is misleading. Cougars on the one hand have been severely displaced due to habitat destruction on our parts. Rats, on the other hand, have historically and culturally dwelled with humans since the dawn of civilization. It’s a fact we haven’t been able to accept, especially with the old wounds of plague. Our homes are their homes.
    Some people have found that having compost bins outside the house serves as an offering of mutual distance to rats and mice. They find food in the compost bins as a result stay out of the pantries in the house. It’s a similar story (though not an identical one) to the one presented in David Abrams’ Spell of the Sensuous, where he describes an Indonesian village providing small plates of rice every morning to appease the spirits. He discovered that these spirits were in fact ants, who resided in that place first before the village was constructed. As a result, the women of the household place an offering of rice every morning, in our terms, as a gesture of good faith and respecting boundaries. And so, there are no ant colonies in the houses.
    In my personal experience with mice, I grew up living with them. Cats came in and out of our lives, and with them, so was the presence of mice. My mother taught me tolerance and acceptance of mice and rats. I can’t really explain her logic behind it. I think she just thought they were cute. At the same time, she would stress how we shouldn’t worry about germs and the like because it would stop us from living. She really had to stress that with us because we lived in a house that was considered biohazardous by many and we were poor and didn’t have anywhere else to go. And so, even if we did wake up the next morning and find the newly acquired loaf of bread with a large chunk eaten away by mice, she didn’t react violently. She just relocated the bread, eventually to the fridge.

  4. Hey there. Here’s my take. I’ve had a house full of pests. I had carpenter ants. I tried pepper, mint spray, and all sorts of things to repel them from the house. As they ate the foundation, we had to make a decision to kill them and I hated it. I hated it with a passion. But I tried everything and the house would collapse.

    We had drain flies. I had killed some but I found the best measure was to pour pots of boiling water down the infested drain as soon as the weather became mildly warm and continue weekly. That way, you kill the habitat before the eggs hatch and don’t have to kill any flies.

    I have had two species of mice and NEVER HAD TO KILL THEM. EVER. I humanely trapped and released each one. One died because my cat caught her and she was a baby so I think she got scared to death. I found another young mouse in my basement dead after the others were eradicated. But the rest have not come back for years now. Humane mouse traps for the win.

    I have two rescued pet rats and could never bear the idea of killing rats who came to live in my house. I even tried to let the mice stay but they pooped and peed all over my stove and kitchen so it became a health risk.

    Rats are not as dangerous as people make them out to be, and they don’t get nearly enough credit for being super smart and loving.

    Hope this helps 😉

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