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Trash Animals: How We Live with Nature's Filthy, Feral, Invasive, and Unwanted Species

(University of Minnesota Press; US: Apr 2013)

Americans love their animals. On YouTube, videos of dogs welcoming their owners home and videos of baby pandas, leopards, and seals garner thousands if not millions of hits. We cry over sappy ASPCA commercials (or just change the channel because they make us too sad), cheer on the underdog Budweiser Clydesdale, and fall in love with Lassie, Dewey the Library Cat, and Black Beauty.


Generally speaking, though, only adorable, cuddly and nonlethal animals are portrayed so lovingly. If we want to see snakes, bugs, or cockroaches front and center, we look to horror films (or really bad sci fi). And this isn’t rocket science. The fact that cute animals are usually more popular than the not-so-cute variety is hardly headline material. Post about dog or domestic cat abuse on Facebook (ferals, as the book notes, are a different matter), and the public outcry will be swift and loud. Post about cockroaches, and people will offer thoughts on the most effective way to kill them.


Enter Kelsi Nagy and Phillip David Johnson, II, are the brave editors of Trash Animals: How We Live with Nature’s Filthy, Feral, Invasive, and Unwanted Species. Their task is not an easy one: to change people’s minds about the animals most wish did not exist at all. Nagy and Johnson launch their attack early; the book is dedicated to “all insignificant, unwanted, or despised creatures of this world”, and in the chapters that follow, varying writers reveal the unexpected and sometimes endearing traits of snakes, coyotes, wolves, cockroaches, and pigeons.


As with most anthologies, there is a range. Some essays end with several pages of sources and some have none. Many of the essays include some type of personal angle, a first-hand experience or story, and some essays are almost exclusively memoir with little to no research. A few feel a little more like long form journalism. A good number reference literary works—after all, it’s hard to talk about snakes without a mention of Adam, Eve, or Medusa. Another chapter is titled “The Bard’s Bird: A Tragicomedy in Five Acts”, and one author compares a packrat invasion to something “that should only happen in stories by Edgar Allan Poe”.


Some of the works appear to be written specifically for this book, but many were previously published, one over twenty years ago. Still, this anthology never feels like a hodgepodge. Instead the combination of impeccably researched essays, first-person perspectives, moments of hope, drunken cockroaches, and a success story or two should make most see the editors’ point and recognize that even “trash” animals can be clever, helpful, and loving.


Of course, this book focuses as much on people as it does animals. Consider Catherine Puckett’s thoughtful take on snakes in “Beauty and the Beast”: “Some of us treat snakes the same way we treat homeless people. We aren’t willing to get to know them, let alone look at them or touch them—our eyes slide away; we walk faster (or run); we don’t want to think about (or read about) them; we don’t want to see them; we definitely do not want them in our territory”.


Or consider, as Kathleen Dean Moore does in “The Parables of the Rats and Mice”, the rhetoric often used to describe human encounters with trash animals:


A mouse was crushed, we say. The forest was cut. The birds were poisoned. An opossum was run over. A good time was had by all. So nobody’s acting here, only being acting upon… Species go extinct, we say. But the fact of the matter is that species don’t always go extinct the way bananas go bad… Human decisions sometimes drive animals to extinction. Human decisions extinguish entire species. Extinguish: to cause to cease burning. All the little sparkling lives.


And while some chapters seem to focus on society’s failures, not all authors are completely successful in their attempts to embrace their unwanted species. In “Metamorphosis in Detroit”, author Carolyn Krause searches for a humane way to rid her home of what appears to be thousands of cockroaches. Her first thought: find a way to lure the roaches out of her home. When this fails, she discovers that cockroaches adore beer (who knew?) and leaves a tub out at night, hoping the cockroaches will get drunk, pass out, and drown in the beer: “No mess. No dangerous chemicals. No direct assault”. Michael P. Branch, whose nemesis is the packrat, would wake up each morning “drink a big mug of strong java, trudge off to [his] improvised trashcan water-tank death chamber, and use the unfortunately named Havahart trap to give terminal swimming lessons to animals that, even if they are shameless stealers of baby pacifiers, are handsome, intelligent creatures that really just want a peanut-butter cracker”.


In the end, the book works and works well because it blends wit with poignancy, features talented writers, and presents the challenge of living with these unwanted species as exactly what it is: a challenge. Nowhere is this clearer than in Bruce Barcott’s chapter “Kill the Cat That Kills the Bird?” The title does a good job of summing up the chapter, but Barcott also examines a larger issue, the “classic squeeze between two equal but conflicting values: the rights of individual animals set against the health of the overall ecosystem”.


It would be nice if there were easy fixes for more of these issues and problems (not that this is something the editors or authors can really control). Still, Trash Animals should at least start some conversations about the way we treat the not so cute and cuddly inhabitants of this planet, and hopefully make many realize that cute and cuddly traits aren’t the only reasons animals should be valued.

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