Each November 1, the Chicago Transit Authority turns on its largely ineffectual heat lamps. Come the first cold snap, pigeons gather to huddle in the scant pools of warmth, heads tucked under wings, apparently confident no one will swoop them up for mass barbecues. Chicagoans of the human sort stand shivering around them, cast out of the heat but loath to disturb their feathered fellow city dwellers.
“Flying Rats,” Andrew D. Blechman’s essay in the anthology Trash Animals, is about our fraught relationship with urban pigeons. The birds drop corrosive poop, damaging statues and buildings, and have been the bane of mayors in many cities. Yet few creatures incite as much affection from city people. Blechman talks to New Yorkers who spend money and time passing out birdseed to street pigeons. In their enthusiasm, birders go so far as to decode racing bands and return lost racing pigeons to their owners, perhaps fondly imagining the reunions that follow.
That’s where fantasy meets reality. Faced with the return of what is, in effect, a defective bird, and seeing nothing but money down the beak, a pigeon owner will usually just break its neck.
In 2004, a red-tailed hawk dubbed Pale Male by his fans was nearly evicted by residents of 927 Fifth Avenue when they decided to remove his nest from the building. Following an international outcry, the hawk was reinstated; he and subsequent mates have continued to raise broods there.
Red-tailed hawks are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Pigeons are not. The gulf between majestic, soaring birds and gray doves who seem to do little more than poop a lot may seem obvious.
Trash Animals points out, in a set of often incisive and penetrating analyses, that those distinctions are not necessarily clear and are mired in centuries of affective human responses to animals, coupled with and even conceived in territorial encroachment and decimation. The language and tropes with which we discuss “trash animals”—species considered pestilential or beneath our attention—echo how we respond to human conditions and groups outside the norm of desirable society.
Take the carp, a fish originally imported from Germany in 1877 to restore piscine populations in areas subject to overfishing and pollution. Notable for their rapid reproductive cycles even in polluted areas, carp eventually came to be derided for their looks, taste, and the very virtue that had brought them here in the first place. “Their resilience, once the reason they were prized, is now the reason they’re damned,” writes Phillip David Johnson II in his chapter on the fish. Today the Asian carp—brought here to keep retention ponds clean, a fact often forgotten—is discussed in terms eerily similar to the discourse from opponents of human immigration, as a foreign species that literally jumped barriers and is now taking over.
Even species considered actual pests take on complicated dimensions in the contexts of their racial, gender, and class narratives. In “Metamorphosis in Detroit,” Carolyn Kraus, a single mother of two, is faced with a nightmarish roach infestation. As a pacifist, vegetarian, and ecofeminist, she’s determined at first not to become yet another Raid-wielding exterminator, but also keeps reminding her boys not tell their classmates about the invasion. It’s one thing to have a rare bird, for instance, make a nest in your house. But roaches signal all kinds of failures, including the failure to adhere to classed and gendered narratives about cleanliness. Never mind that many in cities like Detroit and Chicago are forced to live in neighborhoods where buildings, left to rot in the aftermath of economic devastation, attract and accumulate what we consider pests.
What makes a trash animal? Why is one animal a pest and another a beloved pet or, as in the history of the wolf, a formidable “spirit animal”? This book indicates there are no simple answers to be found. Even a beloved creature like the domestic cat—the U.S. is home to one in four of the world’s cats—can take on pestilential proportions and threaten native populations if introduced into foreign territory.
Domestic cats also create havoc by hunting birds: Hello Kitty becomes a marauding killer, in turn felled as a “trash animal” by gun-toting avian enthusiasts. Animals can become trash if they’re not attractive enough or because of behaviors we consider disgusting—like eating the trash, our trash, they’re driven to consume to survive. The nearly three-inch-long prairie lubber grasshopper (also known as the “plains lubber grasshopper”), to which Jeffrey A. Lockwood devotes a chapter filled with many fascinating if repugnant details, will copiously and stinkily deposit massive amounts of vomit and feces on any predator.
Even wolves and coyotes have often been considered pests, their numbers culled by hunters shooting at them from helicopters and planes—surely nothing else speaks so clearly to the inherent inequality in animal-human relations. This, even though the wolf in particular has a lineage in both literary and cultural imaginations, endowed with near mystical qualities, as Charles Bergman’s evocative “Hunger Makes the Wolf” illustrates.
Trash Animals sometimes brushes close to the mythologizing so prevalent in nature writing, a habit of perceiving the natural world only as something pure and elemental. Lockwood complains about “rather silly postmodern anthropologists who insist that everything is ‘constructed,'” but he misses the point. To state that something is a construct is not to imply that it doesn’t exist, but to point out that our relationship to it—like to that of the wolf—is heavily mediated by prior narratives and mythologies.
This is nowhere clearer than in the inevitable rendering of “the Native American” as Keeper of the Earth, even in essays marked by careful and nuanced writing. Kyhl Lyndgaard’s essay “An Unlimited Take of Ugly” is a defense of the bullhead catfish, despised for its homeliness by contemporary (and mostly white) Americans. He points out that the Ojibwe “chose the bullhead as a totemic animal” and that they see them as “teachers.” Here Native American lore is offered as an argument that provides a supposedly unimpeachable rationale for and defense of the bullhead’s existence.
In a piece on rats and mice, Kathleen Dean Moore describes Viola Cordova, “a laughing, chain-smoking Jicarilla Apache woman with a philosophy doctorate” who visited Moore’s class, and there illustrated that “everything is connected” by drawing lake ripples rocking cattails by the shore. It’s instructive that even a woman with a PhD, presumably in possession of a vast reservoir of knowledge and analysis, is also rendered a figure who, true to type, relays such elemental truths.
Such a figure, the product of decades of white guilt coming after centuries of brutal genocide, persists in North American nature writing. It’s not that Native American relationships to nature should not be noted or praised. But it’s discomfiting, in the 21st century, to fix Native Americans in this by now limited role. Instead of constantly dwelling upon them as elemental caretakers, what might it mean, for instance, to consider the history of reservation ecology or the creation of Indian casinos in cities and deserts, and the subsequent effects on our relationships to animals? What might it mean, in other words, to think of “the Native American” not as outside but within capitalism? That’s a question bigger than this book, but nature writing needs to move beyond what has become just another reductive stereotype.
Still, in the end and to its credit, Trash Animals, like the animals it describes and whose taxonomic histories it provides, complicates and muddies the lines we draw between the animals we love to love and those we despise. This book will be an invaluable, instructive, and entertaining resource for anyone interested in how we learn, or forget, to live with them.