Reviews

'Trash Animals' Reveals the Endearing Traits of Snakes, Coyotes, Cockroaches, Pigeons and Others

This book works well because it blends wit with poignancy, features talented writers, and presents the challenge of living with unwanted species as exactly what it is: a challenge.


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

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Length: 320 pages
Editors: Kelsi Nagy and Phillips David Johnson
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2013-04
Amazon

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.

8

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image