Expert Voices

Have People Really Killed Pests Too Rarely? (Op-Ed)

Cockroaches incessantly bathe their antennae in order to keep their sense of smell in top shape, new research finds (Image credit: Ayako Wada-Katsumata)

Marc Bekoff, emeritus professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is one of the world's pioneering cognitive ethologists, a Guggenheim Fellow, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Bekoff's latest book is Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed (New World Library, 2013). This essay is adapted from one that appeared in Bekoff's column Animal Emotions in Psychology Today. He contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Recently, my email inbox overflowed 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 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. However, Von Drehle raises some very important issues and "hot" topics about which open discussion is essential.

Kill, kill, and kill some more — apparently that's the only solution for righting the wrongs for which people — yes, people — are responsible. We move into the homes of other animals and redecorate them because we like to see the animals or know they're around because it's "cool" to do so. Or, we move in and 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 people do — we kill other animals with little hesitation absent any data that the process really works.

So, I'm glad that 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

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."

However, there are many experts who strongly disagree with that conclusion. It's really too easy to kill and then to justify it because animals have become "pests." As I've previously noted in an essay I wrote for Psychology Today, "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'."

Von Drehle notes in his article that people are a cause of other animals' successes, but he also glosses over available data, and is an alarmist. He slides far too fast between the "problems" deer and other animals supposedly pose with the "problems" predators purportedly 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." The phrase "well-planned hunting" is sort of an oxymoron. With an increase in hunters as young as 6 years old, I question just how selective, effective and humane hunting will really be.

Concerning the animals who Von Drehle calls alpha predators, yes, they are known on occasion 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. A new documentary called "EXPOSED: USDA's Secret War on Wildlife" highlights the wanton and brutal killing ways of an agency called Wildlife Services and it is well worth your time to watch it and to read the summary of this film provided by the organization Predator Defense.

The secret war on wildlife refers to, and results from, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)'s Wildlife Services' wanton assault on numerous species of animals. In EXPOSED, three former federal agents and a Congressman blow the whistle on Wildlife Services' program and expose the government's secret war on wildlife for what it really is: A repugnant, uncontrolled and brutal attack on a plethora of different species.

EXPOSED is one of the most disturbing films I have ever seen. Wildlife Services could easily be called Murder, Inc. Their horrific, intentional and secret slaughter of millions of animals in the name of "coexistence" is appalling. They need to be put out of business.

In commenting about EXPOSED, renowned author and filmmaker Doug Peacock writes, "The USDA Wildlife Service is among the most unaccountable and clandestine of taxpayer-supported programs in America. Their mission is to kill native predators, as secretly as possibly, with zeal unparalleled in brutality and cruelty. Thus, this is a story best told from the inside. EXPOSED ... has cracked Wildlife Services' impenetrability by interviewing three highly articulate former federal agents who tell their inside stories with a clarity I've quite never seen before. We need to understand how this agency works so we can shut it down. The courage of these three former agents and an outspoken congressman make this goal a tangible possibility."

Concern about Wildlife Services' killing ways also comes from Peter DeFazio, the senior U. S. Congressman (D) from Oregon, who notes in his interview for EXPOSED, "Wildlife Services is one of the most opaque and least accountable agencies I know of. It is not capable of reforming itself. They need a mandate for reform ... it's going to have to be imposed on them."

Returning to Von Drehle's essay, he also 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 research has shown that a lack of regard for nonhumans is highly associated with a lack of regard for other humans.

Continuing along this line of reasoning, 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 in response to Von Drehle's piece highlight my deep concerns, as does a short essay by Doris Lin called "Hunting Isn't the Answer to Animal 'Pests'." She concludes, "Hunting is a failed experiment, and it's 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 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.

There are far too many of us

Many people don't like to talk about the fact that there are far too many people, 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 the 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 people do for our being members of an over-producing, over-consuming, big-brained, big-footed and arrogant species. While we indeed do many "good" things for other animals and the 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.

Peaceful coexistence is the only viable solution

As I read through von Drehle's and Lin's essays, and as I watched EXPOSED, 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 appreciate those who work in the area of compassionate conservation for their 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 those animals 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 Von Drehle's 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 animal 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.

Relationships with "pest" animals needs more study

The study of human-animal relationships — the field of anthrozoology — is rapidly growing and what with Wildlife Services' carte blanche willingness and ability to mercilessly slaughter wildlife and a recent declaration that we need to kill urban "pests,"we need to come to terms with how we deal with animals who we call "pests." There are many research projects just waiting to be done.

Of course, the use of the word "pests" is incredibly problematic and prejudicial, and all too easily sets the stage for wanton and brutal killing these animals despite the lack of any evidence this heinous slaughter really works. The unrelenting killing does work to employ people who brutally harm and slaughter other animals, but with the appearance of EXPOSED we can only hope that Wildlife Services will be put to rest once and for all. They are a disgrace and a blight on humanity.

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Will the rules of hunting really change?

The title of Von Drehle's essay as it appears on the 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 and choose to practice "slacktivism" — talking about something but not doing anything to stop it. The perverse "kill when you don't like something" attitude is deeply troubling and must be widely opposed.

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 become 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 be even more violent and irreversible than it is now. Sadly, we're well on the way to ridding the world of numerous species at unprecedented rates in an era called the "Anthropocene" 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, too fast, and simply too self-serving.

Author's Note: At the bottom of Von Drehle's 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, perhaps including those who think killing is just fine, that there are animals in your area to be killed.

Bekoff's most recent Op-Ed was "No Animals Were Harmed in that Film? Not So, Reports Suggest." This article was adapted from "Redecorating Nature: Have We Really Killed Pests Too Rarely?" in Psychology Today. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.