Redecorating Nature: Have We Really Killed Pests Too Rarely?
An Animal Rights Article from

By Marc Bekoff, Psychology Today - Animal Emotions
December 2013

Yes, technically we cull them, but of course the word "culling" is a way to make the word "killing" more palatable. To many people this sanitizing mechanism -- using culling instead of killing -- is readily transparent. But, a subtitle like "It's Time to Kill the Herd", would likely offend many people who find it difficult to grasp that that's what we do - we kill other animals with little hesitation absent any data that this really works.

My email inbox overflowed this afternoon with messages about an anthropocentrically driven essay by David Von Drehle in the current issue of Time magazine titled "America's Pest Problem: It's Time to Cull the Herd."

While I strongly disagree with the tone and take of this essay, because it appears in a widely read publication -- much more widely read than any professional journal of which I'm aware -- it is highly likely that this piece will be considerably more influential than evidenced-based essays for people who both agree and disagree with Mr. Von Drehle's conclusions. Mass media really is that powerful. And, that's why I want to respond briefly to some of what he writes.

There are so many things that are profoundly disturbing in this essay I'm not sure where to begin or just which points to highlight. Some of the messages I received had quotes from this essay that at once shocked and saddened me. Kill, kill, and kill some more; that's the only solution for righting the wrongs for which we -- yes, we -- are responsible. We move into the homes of other animals and redecorate them because we like to see them or because it's "cool" to do so, or we alter their homes to the extent that they need to find new places in which to live and try to feel safe and at peace. And then, when we decide they've become "pests", we kill them. Yes, technically we cull them, but of course the word "culling" is a way to make the word "killing" more palatable. To many people this sanitizing mechanism -- using culling instead of killing -- is readily transparent. But, a subtitle like "It's Time to Kill the Herd", would likely offend many people who find it difficult to grasp that that's what we do - we kill other animals with little hesitation absent any data that this really works.

So, I'm glad that Mr. Von Drehle spoke his mind, and I hope people will read and respond both in print and in action to what he concludes, namely, "Now it is wise to correct the more recent mistake of killing too rarely."

We are the pests who relentlessly redecorate nature and then kill the animals into whose homes we've trespassed

According to a statement made by Time, "David Von Drehle makes the case that the only solution for this resurgent overpopulation is more hunting.

'The same environmental sensitivity that brought Bambi back from the brink now makes it painfully controversial to do what experts say must be done: a bunch of critters need to be killed,' he writes." But, there are many experts who strongly disagree with this conclusion. It's really too easy to kill and then to justify it because animals have become "pests". As I've previously noted in "Stray Animals and Trash Animals: Don't Kill the Messengers"

Our anthropocentric arrogance shines when we use such pejorative and derogatory terms and the words we use inform our actions. These individuals are maimed and killed because they're of no use to us, so some argue. They don't belong where we find them (and in many cases they wouldn't choose to be there), they make messes when we want to expand our own home ranges and territories, and they scare us when we encounter them. We treat them as if they're the problem when, in fact, whatever "problems" they pose can most frequently, some might say invariably, be traced back to something we did to make them become 'problems'.

Mr. Von Drehle notes from time to time that we are a cause of the success of other animals, but he also glosses over available data and is also an alarmist. He also slides far too fast between the problems that deer and other animals pose with those that predators present. For example, he writes:

The return of alpha predators is sure to remind us of the reasons these beasts were so relentlessly hunted by our forefathers. Wolves, lions and bears are known to attack livestock and even pets. On rare occasions, they have killed humans. So what can keep them away from our neighborhoods? Only the pushback from the No. 1 predator of them all: the human being. Well-planned hunting can safely reduce the wildlife populations to levels that won't invite an invasion of fangs and claws.

Yes, these animals are known to attack livestock and pets but data show they are not a real factor in losses of significant numbers of livestock and attacks on pets and humans are incredibly rare. And, "well-planned hunting" is sort of an oxymoron especially with what we know about the heinous murderous ways of Wildlife Services. A new documentary called "EXPOSED: USDA's Secret War on Wildlife" highlights the wanton and brutal killing ways of this uncontrolled federal agency. You also can see the video here and it is well worth your time to watch it and to read the summary of this film provided by Predator Defense. And, what with an increase in hunters as young as 6 years old, I question just how selective and effective hunting will really be.

And there's more. Mr. Von Drehle writes:

But whether we hoist the gun or draw the bowstring--or simply acknowledge the facts of nature that require these things to be done--it's time to shake off sentimentality and see responsible hunting through 21st century eyes. The legacy of indiscriminate 19th century slaughter is not a burden for today's hunters to carry. Instead, they are an important part of the ecosystem America has successfully nursed back from the brink. By shouldering the role of careful, conservation-minded predators, hunters make the coexistence of humans and wildlife sustainable.

I don't see that killing supposed pests is "required" nor do I agree that sentimentality should be shaken-off. Indeed, the animals who are killed are sentient beings who care about what happens to them and to their family and friends and we know that a lack of regard for nonhumans is highly associated with a lack of regard for other humans.

Continuing along this line of reasoning Mr. Von Drehle writes:

But suppose that all these [non-lethal] steps were taken tomorrow and the black bears of New Jersey and elsewhere were instantly restored to their paleo diet. Slow starvation is no happier a way for a bear to die than by a hunter's bullet or arrow. And in the process of starving, animals cut off from their human feed are likely to become increasingly desperate and brazen. They start eating pets instead of pet food. Incidents like this one could become more common: in May, a woman in Altadena, Calif.--a suburb of Los Angeles, near Pasadena--entered her kitchen to find a bear already there, munching on peaches she had left on the counter. When she screamed, the bear reluctantly left the kitchen, ambling outside and flopping on the pool deck for a postprandial snooze. Other nonlethal strategies tend to be either ineffective or expensive or both.

Where's the data?

"Hunting is a failed experiment"

Many of the comments for Mr. Von Drehle's piece highlight my deep concerns as does a short essay by Doris Lin called "Hunting Isnít the Answer to Animal ĎPestsí: State wildlife agencies might want to first try ending their policies of increasing the deer population for no reason other than to kill them". She concludes, "Hunting is a failed experiment, and itís time to employ effective, nonlethal methods. The obvious place to start: stop increasing the population of deer for no reason other than to kill them."

The last sentence of Mr. Von Drehle's essay says it all: "Now it is wise to correct the more recent mistake of killing too rarely." As if we've really killed too rarely. Indeed, we've freely and indiscriminately killed countless millions of other animals because we've created situations in which they become "pests" and we kill because we can. It's just too easy to kill other animals and move on as if killing them is as acceptable as drinking a coke or a beer afterwards.

We are the pests and there are far too many of us: We shouldn't move in, kill them, and think we're so special and we've solved the "problems" at hand

Many people don't like to talk about the fact that there are far too many of us and that we are the most invasive species around and the one who has the power to do anything we want to other animals and to earth. But power does not mean we have license to dominate and to kill. Until we confront the indisputable fact that there are too many of us, we and other animals are doomed. Unfortunately, millions upon millions of nonhumans will pay the price before we do for our being members of an over-producing, over-consuming, big-brained, big-footed, and arrogant species. While we do indeed do many "good" things for other animals and Earth, we surely have done more than our share of "bad" and destructive things that likely will harm us in the future. We suffer the indignities to which we subject other animals.

Compassionate conservation to the rescue: Peaceful coexistence should be the only viable solution

As I read through these two publications I realized that the growing field of compassionate conservation could surely come to the rescue of at least some of these unwanted animal beings because of its emphasis on the well-being of individual animals. I look forward to those who work in the area of compassionate conservation to focus on "trash" animals. Surely, working for peaceful coexistence is a way to "rewild" ourselves. What a terrible lesson it is for youngsters and others that it's just fine to kill other animals when we decide they're a problem.

We need to be careful not to kill the messengers who constantly remind us just how lucky we are to live on our one and only magnificent planet and who also tell us about what we wantonly and unrelentingly do to them and to their homes. Their pain and suffering is incalculable and their deaths are a blight on our humanity. We slaughter sentience all too easily in the most reprehensible ways. There really are no "trash" animals except when we decide they are, and they pay the price by the billions for our uninformed and self-serving views.

The term "trash animal" should be viewed as an oxymoron, conveniently invented because it allows us to get rid of them however, wherever, and whenever we choose. It won't be soon enough when this term is deleted from our vocabulary once and for all and these animals are respected for who they are and allowed to live in peace and safety.

So, thanks to Time for publishing this essay. Cruelty can't stand the spotlight and if people who disagree with the tone of this piece don't do anything, millions upon millions of animals will be killed. Indifference is the same as allowing these individuals to be mercilessly killed because of our invasive nature and arrogance. People who are "mad about wildlife" because they welcome their presence (not because they see them as supposed pests), need to do something now to stop the killing.

Will the rules of hunting really change? Is kill, kill, kill the only way to go?

The title of Mr. Von Drehle's essay on cover of Time with a picture of a lone deer is, "American's Pest Problem: Why the rules of hunting are about to change". Are they? If they do, and killing animals we call "pests" is as easily accepted as swatting flies or mosquitos when they bother you, it's because those who oppose the kill, kill, kill mentality remain silent. The perverse "kill when you don't like something" attitude is perverse and deeply troubling.

If the message "we've killed too rarely" becomes the bumper sticker for future generations, it will be a sad time for all. I fear it'll then be readily accepted that killing does and will work, whatever "work" means, and that there truly will be a sustained and unrelenting war on wildlife that will even be more irreversible than it is now. Sadly, we're really well on the way to ridding the world of numerous species without this misguided mandate. Accepting the "we've killed too rarely" argument as if it's fact, and as if there are no alternatives, is disheartening and simply too self-serving.

Note: At the bottom of the summary of this essay there's an invitation to send Time photos of animals in your backyard. Someone asked me, and I also wonder, why in the world would anyone do this? It's tantamount to committing them or members of their species to a death sentence and supporting the argument that because many animals are so successful they need to be killed. Please don't send in your pictures, "cute" as they may be, as they will alert people that there are animals in your area to be killed.

Return to Animal Rights Articles