Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Pigeons. Cockroaches. Grasshoppers. Just what is a 'trash animal'?

So-called trash species—including pigeons, gulls, coyotes, carp, and cockroaches, among others—cause wonder as to why some species are admired while others are reviled.

M.A. in philosophy from Colorado State University and a graduate student of anthrozoology at Canisius College in New York

What is a ‘trash animal’?

I am often asked this question when someone discovers that I am an editor of a collection of essays with a title of the same phrase.

Long answer: The phrase "trash animal" is used to describe many animals. Fur trappers deem non-target species caught in traps as “trash animals.” Some people—even animal-loving people like birders—will call certain common or ubiquitous species like pigeons or starlings “garbage birds.” An angler may describe fish such as carp, catfish or bi-catch as “trash fish.” This phrase can apply to animals considered vermin, varmints, exotic or invasive species and may also refer to problematic, ugly, dangerous or otherwise unwanted wildlife. Seagulls, mice, coyotes, rattlesnakes, feral cats, prairie dogs, and grasshoppers, are some of these so-called “trash animals” featured in the Trash Animals collection.

Short Answer: No animals are trash.

Everyone seems to have an animal they despise above all others. My friend Alyson can’t think of one good reason for grasshoppers to exist. My mother can’t stand seeing a squirrel at her birdfeeder. There are legions of pigeon haters, coyote hunters and ophidiophobics (people who have a phobia of snakes). Most of us would be happy to never experience another mosquito sting or to see a cockroach run across a countertop. Some frustrations with animals are all too real, while other perceived conflicts are revealed as figments of imagination. But no matter how much a person loathes an animal species there is no justification to deem an animal as trash.

Trash is a human-generated category—one that does not exist in nature. Garbage, waste, rubbish, effluvia and filth are all ideas humans impose upon the natural world. What is deemed trash can change depending on the historical context, culture, or individual. Therefore, trash is highly arbitrary. Because of the highly subjective nature of the category, the phrase “trash animals” does far more to reveal human frustrations with the natural world than it does to describe actual qualities possessed by an animal. Trash usually refers to inanimate objects, from an gum wrapper to an old iPod. The phrase “trash animal” has the potential to create moral loophole of sorts—used to justify treating animals as if they are lifeless objects to be disposed of. The Trash Animals collection challenges readers to reconsider attitudes about maligned species and, ultimately, to reimagine our ethics of engagement with problematic wildlife.

Many troublesome species defy being neatly categorized by humans. Domestic animals, like cats and pigeons, forge autonomous lives in our cities and in the wilderness, complicating notions about the wild and domestic and challenge the limits humans have to control animal lives. Other animals in the collection forage on human trash or are otherwise associated with trashed landscapes. These animals challenge the nature-culture dichotomy.

This connection between animals and trash is illustrated in a startling way by a recent film about animals eating trash. “Midway: Message of the Gyre” is currently being filmed by artist Chris Jordan to document a wildlife tragedy playing out on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean. 2,000 miles away from the nearest continent, albatross are dying from a startling number of plastic items in their stomachs. Jordan draws out the tragic connection between human trash and animals through photography and film. Sadly a large amount of trash has made its way into the ocean and albatross do not differentiate between bottle caps and squid, toothbrushes or fish when hunting for food. Eventually the accumulation of plastic in the birds’ bodies kills them. Jordan shows image after image of a decomposed bird’s body encircling a pile of colored plastic. While humans can differentiate between trash and habitat, many animals, like albatross, cannot. Instead of looking to our consumer habits for creating these environmental harms, we often despise animals that scavenge on trash, like seagulls, pigeons and raccoons—which often become scapegoats for human excess and pollution.

Like Jordan’s film, some of the information about human-animal relationships is troubling or disturbing. Some conflicts between humans and animals can be humanely resolved through changing human behavior combined with a better understanding of animal behavior. Other conflicts between humans and animals remain unresolved.

While frustrations with so-called trash animals remain, many of the contributors to Trash Animals find value or humor in their in relationship with rodents, insects or carp. Though Michael P. Branch hears the battle cry when he finds his daughter’s pacifier in a pack rat’s nest in the crawlspace under his house, he still searches for humane-conflict resolution with “Rat Bastard.” Jeffery Allan Lockwood discovers value in being vomited and defecated on by a large harmless grasshopper. Phillip David Johnson II finds beauty fly fishing for carp in a city municipal pond. And Carolyn Krauss tries to lure cockroaches out of her house with her favorite beer.

The essays in Trash Animals give fresh perspectives and voices to difficult questions about human relationships with some species. We may be reluctant to embrace these new stories about wildlife because many of these species remind us that we are living in a postpristine world, full of trash, polluted landscapes and invasive species. Animals that successfully inhabit new environments, alter landscapes, and disrupt ecosystems remind us, uncomfortably, of ourselves.

We can’t call an animal “trash” without implicating ourselves. Maybe we can find a kind of redemption in the idea that we always have the ability to change our attitudes toward wildlife. As Charles Bergman states in his essay for this collection, “Our relationship with animals cannot be reduced, or confined, to the comforting absolutes of a biologist’s graph. In fact, the virtue of seeing our relationships with animals, both personal and cultural, as something we can choose, as a scenario created by us rather than determined for us, is that we are not bound by what has been. This view gives us the hope of freedom and change in our relations with animals.”


Kelsi Nagy is co-editor of Trash Animals: How We Live with Nature's Filthy, Feral, Invasive, and Unwanted Species. She holds an M.A. in philosophy from Colorado State University and is a graduate student of anthrozoology at Canisius College in New York. She received a 2012 Culture and Animals Foundation grant for her research on cattle in human culture. She lives and works in Fort Collins, Colorado.

"I highly recommend Trash Animals for anyone interested in learning more about the amazing animals with whom we share space and time."
—Marc Bekoff, Psychology Today

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