Stray Animals and Trash Animals: Don't Kill the Messengers

Filthy, feral, invasive, and unwanted "tossed aside" species say a lot about us

Posted May 22, 2013

Our relationships with nonhuman animals (animals) are complex, challenging, and paradoxical. We allow dogs and cats to breed themselves to death and continue to harm and kill other animals and destroy their homes at unprecedented rates as we take over and destroy the natural world. Two recent publications succinctly drive home these and other points. 

The first publication is a report by Diana Webster called "The economic impact of stray cats and dogs at tourist destinations on the tourism industry." I found this essay to be fascinating and at first somewhat surprising. In a nutshell, stray animals "ruin millions of tourists’ vacations and impact profits for tourism companies and tourist destinations." Around 41% of people will not return to places where they have seen the suffering of stray cats and dogs and 7% won't visit these places at all. These numbers account for millions of people and a lot of money that is spent elsewhere. The best way to deal with the number of unwanted strays is to neuter them so there will be fewer and fewer unwanted individuals. 

Destinations to which tourists refuse to travel because of stray animals

When I rethink the results of this important study I'm less surprised than I was a first. Why travel to a place where there is overt suffering when you can vacation in more hospitable and equally beautiful and culturally rich areas? 

The other publication that caught my eye is a most significant and eye-opening book titled Trash Animals: How We Live With Nature's Filthy, Feral, Invasive, and Unwanted Species, edited by Kelsi Nagy and Phillip David Johnson II. Some snippets from the book's description nicely summarize what can be found in five sections and seventeen chapters. 

"Why are some species admired or beloved while others are despised? An eagle or hawk circling overhead inspires awe while urban pigeons shuffling underfoot are kicked away in revulsion. Fly fishermen consider carp an unwelcome trash fish, even though the trout they hope to catch are often equally non-native. Wolves and coyotes are feared and hunted in numbers wildly disproportionate to the dangers they pose to humans and livestock.

"In Trash Animals, a diverse group of environmental writers explores the natural history of wildlife species deemed filthy, unwanted, invasive, or worthless, highlighting the vexed relationship humans have with such creatures. ... Identifying such animals as trash tells us nothing about problematic wildlife but rather reveals more about human expectations of, and frustrations with, the natural world.

"By establishing the unique place that maligned species occupy in the contemporary landscape and in our imagination, the contributors challenge us to look closely at these animals, to reimagine our ethics of engagement with such wildlife, and to question the violence with which we treat them. Perhaps our attitudes reveal more about humans than they do about the animals."

I highly recommend Trash Animals for anyone interested in learning more about the amazing animals with whom we share space and time. It would also be a very good text for advanced undergraduate and graduate courses. As with "The economic impact of stray cats and dogs at tourist destinations on the tourism industry", Trash Animals emphasizes how much we can learn about ourselves from paying close attention to how we interact with and treat other animals. Furthermore, among the myriad of topics that need deep and passionate discussion, we need to think about the words we use to describe other animals. How can any individual or species be called trash or unwanted? Just what is an "invasive species"? Who are, what Georgia State University's Randy Malamud calls in his introduction, these marginalized "disgusting 'others'"?

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".

Compassionate conservation to the rescue

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 focusing on trash animals. 

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. 

The teaser image can be found here. 


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