Looking at language: Pests

I recently posted about fireworks and the devastation they cause, illustrating the post with a tragic picture of countless dead birds on a city street following new year fireworks. 

It is well documented that fireworks terrify all the living individuals in their vicinity. Those who share their homes with dogs or cats are, for the most part, acutely aware of this and there’s even a lucrative trade in consumer items to soothe and calm nonhuman family members who experience the sickening panic caused by fireworks. However these are far from being the only species affected. For some creatures who live outdoors, the terror is so extreme that their panicking hearts simply fail. Others fly frantically into obstacles, killing or injuring themselves, while yet others bolt in mindless panic, frequently becoming lost, injured or killed.

Besides being antisocial and causing distress and anxiety to many humans, fireworks are an extreme form of noise pollution and result in widespread toxic litter, polluting the habitats of every wild creature who depends on the environment for food and shelter. In many places – my homeland of Scotland included – there are ongoing and widely supported campaigns calling for the practice to become illegal. 


On reflection, the setting off of fireworks is one of a vast number of ‘celebratory’ practices in which our species participates casually and carelessly; practices that cause death and destruction to innocent creatures, and which constitute wanton vandalism, environmental littering and pollution on a breathtaking scale, while perpetrators adopt an attitude of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ and choose to remain oblivious to the consequences of their behaviour. Examples that spring instantly to mind are balloon releases, sky lantern releases and setting free flocks of captive doves, often as part of a wedding.  As a species, surely we can celebrate without destroying innocent lives? 

Anyway, against that background, I noted a comment on a share of the firework post that remarked how, in that particular city, there were people walking about with megaphones to create noise, being paid ‘to scare these pests out of the trees to try to get them away from the city’. The implication was that the dead birds had only themselves to blame for not being appropriately scared away, and the term that rocked me back on my heels and made me feel slightly sick, was ‘these pests’. 

Pests. I get the same feeling when I see the word ‘vermin’, but in this case. it was ‘pests’.

The assumption that only humans matter

Now if this comment had been in any way unusual, I might have been able to shrug it off, but it very neatly epitomises a whole way of thinking that is depressingly common amongst our species. With our unchecked hubris and supreme arrogance, humans persist in regarding their own species as the only one that matters, with the struggling planet and her persecuted life forms ours to do with as we will. Without regard for the consequences, we continue to carve blood and brutality across a burning, melting, disease-racked globe, laying waste to all in our path in the most sustained and destructive regime of oppression that has ever been unleashed.

In so many ways we usurp the natural world with our sprawling, ever expanding urbanisation and with the poisons and toxins we pour so liberally onto the land and into the oceans.  We destroy ecosystems and natural habitats, displacing the rightful occupants of ancient communities.  As our population rapidly increases, we are crowding out the wild creatures for whom planet Earth is their rightful and only home, every bit as much as it ever was for humans. 

Then, when they’ve nowhere left to go, when they try to eke a living where they have always been, we condemn them as ‘pests’ and try to justify scaring them out of the spaces we’ve claimed, eradicating them with agonising traps and guns and poisons, designing buildings to ensure that birds are denied perching spaces, waging war against innocent lives.

Every day we read of foxes, bears, coyotes, raccoons, pigeons and other displaced species reduced to scavenging for scraps in our streets and our rubbish bins. Recent articles told of desperate elephants foraging landfill sites in Sri Lanka, and starving polar bears raiding bins and dumps in northern climes. Our species has taken their wild places from them, while wrecking the balance of the climate that provided for their needs. And then, adding insult to the worst of injuries as we always do, and assuming that our species’ possession of any given space is of prime importance, we call them ‘pests’ and seek to wipe them out.

Getting rid of unwanted lives

It must also be noted that ‘animal agriculture’ with its consumer-driven requirement to accommodate rapidly increasing numbers of victims, is swift to categorise both indigenous and introduced species as pests, often with the flimsiest of ‘justifications’, in favour of those species whose lives and bodies are used to generate profit.  Foxes, badgers, rabbits and many others all pay the ultimate price for their very existence, often in the falsely benevolent guise of another related word; a cull.

There are many avenues that lead from this self-importance.  I would suggest it’s related to the same callous conceit that labels cats and dogs who have been betrayed by humans and find themselves homeless, as ‘strays’ to be rounded up and ‘disposed of’ in shelters. And meanwhile any insect, any bird, any rodent or mammal seeking to carve an existence in the meagre spaces between the areas claimed by our species, instantly becomes a target, instantly becomes vermin, is instantly reviled as a pest.

I don’t intend for this to be a long blog, so I’m going to leave it here, with a thought for the day.  The next time you hear or see the word ‘pest’ or ‘vermin’, please give some consideration to the deeper implications that exist, and the way words betray our speciesism.

Be vegan.


Pest (noun)
a destructive insect or other animal that attacks crops, food, livestock, etc.
an annoying person or thing; a nuisance.

Vermin (noun)
wild animals that are believed to be harmful to crops, farm animals, or game, or which carry disease, e.g. rodents.

Link to Spanish translation with grateful thanks to Igor Sanz of Lluvia Con Truenos (Rain with Thunder)

This entry was posted in Addressing resistance to change, Global disasters, Terminology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Looking at language: Pests

  1. So incredibly sad.


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