How To Love A “Pest”

I laughed when I read the Canberra Times headline ‘Liberals environment spokeswoman suggests eradication of native bird species’. It turns out that some of the spokeswoman’s constituents are annoyed by the migratory cuckoo known as the common koel (Eudynamys scolopacea), and because they’re annoyed they want something done. She herself referred to the birds as ‘imported pests’, and wanted them managed or eradicated.

Koel, wikimedia commons
Koel, wikimedia commons

Surely not, I thought! It is true that the call of the male koel is loud and insistent, but let’s be honest: homo sapiens is the only animal to have invented the two-stroke engine and used it to acoustically assault the suburbs. Mowers, whipper-snippers, angle-grinders, chain-saws and other DIY tools of destruction and construction out-perform koels all year round.

Actually, I like koels. I didn’t get to hear them arrive in Sydney this year, and I felt deprived. But like or dislike, can anyone seriously entertain the idea that just because something is annoying is ought to be gotten rid of?

The answer, unfortunately, is ‘yes’, as one quickly learns from a visit to the website of the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre (CRC). CRC’s are a government initiative that links industry, universities, stakeholders, and others for the purpose of furthering knowledge and capacity on matters of national concern. The Invasive Animals CRC has as its focus vertebrates that are deemed to be invasive either because they are non-native or because they have become identified as a ‘pest’, or both. There we learn that ‘The Invasive Animals CRC creates new technologies and integrated strategies to reduce the impact of invasive animals on Australia’s economy, environment, and people’. Technologies, when we explore the term, turn out to be a range of methods involving both killing and genetic engineering to reduce or eliminate reproductive capacity.

One of the key terms is ‘pest’. Many thoughtful persons have noted that  once an animal is declared ‘pest’, or ‘vermin’, or even ‘invasive’, something happens within the sensibilities of many humans. As my friend Thom van Dooren discovered in his research on foxes and the penguin colony at Manly in Sydney, those animals deemed not to belong slip into a category of those whose ‘lives are not legitimate lives within the context of contemporary ecologies, and as such … their deaths are not only condoned (as they often are in legislation), but also in an important sense demanded for the sake of any genuine conservation’.

Killing for conservation is certainly problematic, and advocates of compassionate conservation argue that it is inherently wrong. But the problems with ‘pests’ go much deeper. To quote educational materials provided via the CRC website: ‘The word “pest” is used to describe an animal that causes serious damage to a valued resource. Such a pest may be destructive, a nuisance, noisy or simply not wanted.’ From this open-ended definition, decisions are made about which lives matter and which lives don’t.

The Invasive Animals CRC website gives you a link to, and there you really start to learn about the nitty-gritty of decision-making and killing. The PestSmart YouTube Channel offers short tutorials on all manner of killing. You can learn, for example, how to rip up rabbit warrens.

Rabbit Photo: Arian Wallach
Photo: Arian Wallach

What you don’t learn is just how dreadful this method is for the rabbits. My friend Freya Mathews, a leading environmental philosopher, encountered this method when she began investigating ways of removing rabbits from her bio-conservation property. In her words:

‘Ripping involves the mechanical destruction of warrens by large blades attached to a tractor. I had rejected ripping earlier on account of the impact of the heavy ripping vehicles on soil and vegetation, but now that the contractors were more or less insisting, I thought I had better investigate the effect of the procedure on rabbits themselves. To my horror I found that in the course of ripping, rabbits inside the warrens are themselves ripped – they are simply sliced up, with those that are not killed outright being left to die, buried alive with appalling injuries, all conveniently out of sight. I had been willing to kill rabbits for the sake of ecological restoration, but this was way too much – it was torture, brutal beyond imagining. Yet this is one of the standard methods of rabbit management, routinely practised across the country, prescribed in all the government literature and on all the official web sites.’

Other video tutorials show how to set mechanical injectors into bait so that target animals (foxes, dingoes) will be orally injected with 1080 or cyanide. You learn that injectors don’t replace trapping and aerial baiting, they are just one tool among many.

Dingo Photo: Arian Wallach
Photo: Arian Wallach

You don’t learn that the World League for Protection of Animals has concluded that 1080 poison (sodium monofluoroacetate), which is banned in almost every country in the world, should also be banned in Australia ‘not only for its cruelty, but also because we simply do not know what might be long term effects of continually pouring substantial amounts of the poison into the environment’. 1080 is one of the main poisons used against dingoes, other canines and foxes, and is also used against rabbits and other herbivores. More specifically: ‘1080 poison is a slow killer. When ingested the animal suffers a prolonged and horrific death. … They may convulse and haemorrhage blood from ears, nose and mouth, respiratory muscles fail and they suffocate.’

As this group noted in an earlier publication, ‘aside from the physical pain endured over the many hours before death, the terror, fear and anxiety felt by these animals is unimaginable.’

Along with these and many more kill-focussed tutorials, offers educational materials for primary and secondary school teachers. You can download a PowerPoint for use in teaching children in years five and six. According to the site: ‘Pest Tales provides primary school teachers with a complete and up to date resource which highlights pest animal species in Australia, their impact and current ways of managing the damage they inflict on the environment, economy and people.’

I worked my way through the slides with mounting horror. The first question for the children to consider is: what is a pest? The first set of answers includes labels and photos: feral (photos of cat, goat, etc), exotic/introduced (cane toad, etc), invasive (fox, rabbits, horses), and pest (magpie, flying-foxes and possum). The definition of pest is ‘an animal detrimental to humans or human interests’, and the explanation of detriment is that ‘a pest is a matter of opinion’. If anyone was wondering where and how children learn human-centrism, this PowerPoint is a great resource. Within the parameters, human-centrism is unavoidable – if a pest is an animal detrimental to humans (actually, to be more objective, to some humans), then humans are the ones who  decide the animal is a pest.

It becomes clear just how impoverished this vision of animals and ecosystems really is when we stop to  consider the fact that there is no real engagement with population dynamics and Australian ecosystems.

Rabbits, wikimedia commons
Rabbits, wikimedia commons

It is difficult to imagine a more shallow approach to matters of life and death than to sidestep ethics and ecosystems, and portray complex issues as if they were opinions.

Another slide labelled ‘Run Rabbit Run’ lists all the methods that have been used to try to eradicate rabbits: poison baiting (ground and aerial), trapping, fencing, shooting, ferreting, hunting, snaring, scaring, release of predators such as foxes, fumigating warrens, ripping warrens, blasting warrens with explosives, disease – myxomatosis, disease – rabbit haemorrhagic disease, introduction of fleas to increase spread of disease. Please remember that this list of horrors  is being taught to young children.

Since none of these methods has actually been successful, and since no alternatives are offered, the future looks likely to be as steeped in suffering as has  the past. And what the children don’t learn is that the one predator that would have a good chance of keeping rabbits in check – the dingo – is itself considered a pest.

These websites and their ‘information’ offer evidence of the widespread, bureaucratised, tax-payer funded, university-based, industry-supported, socially sanctioned pursuit of killing as a way of inhabiting the land. The fact that the manufacturer of 1080, Animal Control Technologies (Australia) Pty Ltd, is a participant in the CRC is known as industry collaboration, and is therefore not seen as collusion. The killing is cloaked in the language of managerial efficiency, but the iconography tells the other story – of vilification, persecution, and justification.

Sign posted at Paroo-Darling National Park
Sign posted at Paroo-Darling National Park

At the end of the day there can be no doubt: frequently what passes for a job well done is actually another act of the most terrible cruelty in an on-going saga of death.

I keep coming back to the normalisation of all this death work, and to the mind-set that takes it for granted that if a non-human animal is annoying, ‘something’ should be done. To return to the koels in Canberra: the Liberals environmental spokeswomen was subjected to a fair bit of ridicule, but if we look at the issue from the viewpoints presented by the Invasive Animals CRC and its related websites, right was on her side. People were annoyed. The koels were doing it. They were, therefore,  pests (at least to some people). And as pests, they were a problem to be managed or eradicated.

An alternative to this mind-set is readily available.

It is not at all difficult to love the migratory koels. There comes a time when winter is on the way out, but spring hasn’t quite arrived. There are big winds, and often they are cold. In Sydney it feels like we will never warm up. And then – riding those huge winds, the koels arrive.

When I hear that call my heart lifts. A YouTube clip captures it nicely, and I love knowing that the name koel is onomatopoetic. This bird is readily identifiable and it tells a great story: the big air and ocean currents that govern the weather are shifting.

Approaching rain, outback Australia
Approaching rain, outback Australia

I remember the call from the Northern Territory which is where I first heard it. There, koels are also called rain birds, or storm birds, and they arrive in advance of the wet season. Their great travel path brings them from southeast Asia to Papua New Guinea and Australia where they breed and spend the summer before flying back in the autumn. The effort it takes to fly those great distances, coming with one set of winds and leaving when the winds shift again, shows us the absolute grace of nomadic mobility. The birds fit beautifully into the large circulations of life on earth.

I agree with my Aboriginal teachers – these birds bring good news. And the fact is, they leave. They have to leave if they are to come back again with more news. This is what they do – every year. The departure and the return are the rhythms of nomadic mobility, and in this time of rapid environmental change there is consolation in the fact that the winds and currents, and thus the koels, continue to live out their patterns and connections.

Blessed are those who arrive with good news, and blessed too is their departure.  May we all learn to say both ‘welcome’ and ‘fare thee well’.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

8 thoughts on “How To Love A “Pest”

  1. Well, this is shocking – I’ve always been fascinated by koels and looked for their return(s). I remember the first time I (finally) managed catch a glimpse of one after pursuing the calls coming from a local park – it’s not an experience I’ll be forgetting any time soon. They are imposing birds, and their presence demands respect.

    How did we (settler people) lose sight of the sacredness of (migratory) birds? The way you write of welcoming and farewelling the koel reminds me of interrelated modern Greek traditions about migratory bird species. There’s a tradition in Greece that on the first of March one sings the Chelidonisma (‘swallow song’) to welcome the coming of the swallow. These songs describe the returning of the swallows from ‘the outside’, ‘over the black sea’ and the from land of the dead, bringing life and vitality with them. The Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus) is similarly considered an augur of spring in Greece and is honoured with songs, rituals and foretellings. In another tradition from southern Greece, migratory cinereous vultures (Aegypius monachus), known as nekropoulia (death-birds), are associated with signs, taboos, and warnings of impending death. People have understood these birds as taking the souls of the dead with them back to ‘xenitia’ (‘foreign lands’), over the sea and down to the Lower World of the dead.

    What I take from these traditions is reciprocity and interdependence: migratory birds are mediators between the realms, bringing life and also returning us to death. This kind of synthesis is not one that can easily contemplate extermination. As well as having their own ways and intentions that may be opaque to us, other species have also formed inextricable part of our mental and existential compass. Simply being inconvenient or irritating or frightening has never been justification for extermination.

    Lawder’s words , and the Invasive Animals CRC website, are profoundly saddening to read.

    1. That’s a lovely comment. I’m fascinated by what you say about birds in Greece. There is indeed a great deal of wisdom here. We are losing so much – the birds, our own wisdom traditions, and our awareness of being part of these big stories – and it doesn’t have to be this way! I really hate the fact that my money helps pay for all the killing, and all the erasure of the world’s beauty. As Aldo Leopold said, all those many years ago: ‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’ [Sand Country Almanac, Land Ethic, pp. 224-225]

  2. Hello
    Native bird species, including the migratory cuckoo known as the common koel, actually benefit when feral animals such as feral cats are controlled. Protecting biological diversity is enhanced when wild rabbits are controlled as the rabbit threatens almost 200 native species (mainly plants). There is no genetic engineering research involved in biological control, eg the naturally-occurring virus brought from overseas to Australia that controls rabbits here. I recommend the Deborah Bird Rose make an appointment to meet the CEO at Invasive Animals CRC in Canberra when he returns in 3 weeks. That conversation could be most illuminating. I would be happy to facilitate this. Signed Glenn Conroy – past communications manager.

    1. We are, I believe, in substantial agreement in our concern for the integrity of Australian ecosystems. Where we may disagree is on questions of ethics and education.
      I have great admiration for people who are working for conservation of Australian biodiversity AND who do not hide from the fact that this may have to involve a lot of death (of cats, rabbits and others). I admire people who face up to the consequences, both beneficial and harmful, of their actions.
      Freya Mathews summarises a long debate in philosophy concerning the clash between ecological ethics (taking species, habitats and their interactions as the focus of ethical decision-making), and animal ethics (taking individual creatures, their lives and their capacity to suffer as the focus of ethical decision-making). She concludes, as have many philosophers, that these two ways of making ethical decisions may not be reconcilable. And yet decisions must be made. To do that one needs the full picture of an issue.
      The place to start teaching ethics – both animal ethics and ecological ethics – is with young children. The educational PowerPoint I discussed focussed almost exclusively on human issues. Neither ecological nor animal ethics were engaged with adequately.
      So, yes, I am glad that feral cats are controlled, and if that means killed, then I would like to know that. However, there’s no reason to vilify cats – they are, after all, just being cats. The CRC does carry out research into alternatives to all the killing, and that, to my mind, is its best work.

  3. Thanks for an interesting essay, as it clearly articulates the problems associated with our anthropocentric view of nature. We classify populations and species as pests when they interfere with human-biased values, and we use words like ‘pests’, ‘invasive’ or ‘common’ to enable us to downgrade the intrinsic values of other species and the individual animals that they are comprised of.

    The Koel example shows how far we have come from being able to share land/space with other species, populations and individuals. We routinely kill millions of animals in Australia every year under the premise of them being a pest. The problem here is that we lose sight of the harm we inflict on others and we opt for killing as our one and only solution to rectify human-wildlife conflicts. Where is the compassion for other beings?

    Luckily, empathy for others is a universal adaptation that can be drawn upon to find new solutions to conflicts. Those of us around the world who are examining how compassion can benefit our decision-making in conservation and wildlife management are finding that once narrow and entrenched views are re-examined, previously intractable conflicts can be resolved. Read Bekoff 2013 ‘Ignoring Nature No More’ for examples. Without doubt, the direct impact of humans and the indirect impact from species we have introduced onto this continent are large – but these facts alone do not justify mass killing in perpetuity. We need to be much smarter in how we engage with issues around perceived imbalances in nature, and bringing compassion for individuals to the table is a great way to start.

    Have I been kept awake by Koels? Yes, but while awake I was able to ponder how lucky it was to be able to live in a concrete jungle and still find some species who were able to tolerate the harsh environments we have created. I, and many others, agree with Michael Soulé (and indeed with Aldo Leopold), that nature is not a garden that we can prune and shape to suits our needs and values.

  4. Thank you Deborah Bird Rose. You have produced a beautifully crafted observation of something which I am still reeling from, some 2 years after having had it literally shouted to the large gathering of people I was with on a promotional tour of the bush labelled PestSmart Roadshow.
    I was also given a DVD, a professionally produced USB device, much full colour, lavishly illustrated material, and luncheon to digest with them. On a large table adjacent to this freeby bar, were displays of all of the wondrous products of the sponsoring company that I could buy to rid my property of all the many “pests” described in the literature.
    “Feralmones” would attract the dogs and foxes to the poison laced traps, where the painfully trapped animals may wait for up to a week for the release of a bullet. ” Doggone” could be injected into meat baits and laid as directed for an antidote free, long agonising death. Foxoff, Rabbait, Mouseoff, Dencofume, Ratoff, Pigout, Slugoff, the list seemed endless. I worried on the long drive home just how many animals had to suffer the testing of these products until the required dosage was right to kill them. I cried for the innocence of the children who would be raised in the control areas with the Powerpoint education tools of killing, which was the output of this publicly funded CRC.
    I still wake from the nightmares which recur. I cannot comprehend what part of humanity can evangelize this destruction of nature, can write grants to do their work, and what sort of government can legitimise it all. My soul has been brutalized by that experience, and I know I will take my despair to my grave. These crimes are akin to war crimes in my personal estimation, yet organisations and governments agree to their imprimatur being included in the self aggrandizing literature. I look at the blank postcard with the logo emblazoned on the front, and wonder to whom I would ever post such a loathesome thing.
    How does a shattered soul like mine recover sufficiently to go into battle against this degradation? We simply must somehow raise an army to do it if indeed good is meant to conquer evil. I am even ashamed to expose this abominable facet of my birth country. Just thank you for the ability to unemotionally write about the most emotional face to face experience with evil that I have ever endured!

    1. Dear Lyn, Thanks for this sincere message of fellow feeling with the sufferings of others, and thanks for naming the evil that surrounds this slaughter. Your message reminds me that empathy is an ancient quality, and is necessary for social life. The great scholar of animal empathy, Frans de Waal, says that empathy is probably as old as mammals and birds. He defines empathy in a characteristically detached scientific manner: ‘perception of the emotional state of another automatically activates shared representations causing a matching emotional state in the observer’. Only a scientist could come up with a way of writing about empathy that is not empathetic! But my real point is this: all the current cruelty to animals and humans shows that humans can over-ride their in-built empathy. It may be that re-learning empathy is one of the keys to unlocking the human heart so as to enable a better life for all. Your message is a wonderful reminder of the depths of feeling that go with empathy, especially when confronted with the hard-hearted refusal of others to take the suffering of others into their experience. Thank you.

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