Are Animal ‘Pests’ Really The Villains We Make Them Out To Be?

33:15 minutes

A woman with a rat on her shoulder.
Bethany Brookshire. Credit: Lancer Photography, 2022. All rights reserved.

Join us as we enter the rat’s nest. The snake pit. The mouse trap. What, precisely, is it that untangles an animal friend from foe? This week, we’re taking a close look at pests—critters with a notorious reputation for being destructive, annoying, and even villainous.

 We’re also going to get a little philosophical and ask: What do those opinions tell us about ourselves? 

Science journalist Bethany Brookshire is the author of Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She joins Ira to talk about her new book, challenge our perspectives on what makes a pest, and answer listener’s pest-y questions live.

To read an excerpt of the book, click here.

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Segment Guests

Bethany Brookshire

Bethany Brookshire is a science journalist and author of Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She’s from the D.C. area.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: For the rest of the hour, a group of animals that are, well, not everybody’s favorite. I’m thinking of mice scurrying in your basement, bears rummaging through your trash bins, the pigeons just a little too close for comfort. Yes, we’re talking about pests, critters notorious for being destructive and annoying, and even villainous. I’m thinking of you, squirrel.

But we’re going to get a little philosophical also this hour and ask, what makes a pest a pest? The answer is not quite that easy. I mean, take the elephant. You wouldn’t consider an elephant a pest. It’s the fun animal we like to see in the zoo and we feed peanuts to. That is unless you happen to live near elephants. Then they can ravage your crops, they can crush your home. In other words, turn into a life-changing pest.

And even the lovable cat which, at the right time and in the right place, can and has become, well, not so welcome. We’re going to get into that and a lot of other great stuff in a new book, called Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. And joining me now is the author, Bethany Brookshire, a science journalist and the author of Pests she’s. Based in Cheverly, Maryland. And today she joins us from WAMU, in Washington, DC. Hi, Bethany.

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: Hi. Thank you for having me. I’ll try to keep my fan-girling to myself.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you. Well, what do you mean by, in the book title– How Humans Create Animal Villains– what do you mean by that?

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: Well, I went into the book trying to figure out what makes an animal a pest. And the short answer to that is that humans do. It’s humans that decide that an animal is causing us trouble. And so, really, the thing that makes an animal a pest is what we think of it and what we believe about it and why we think it’s causing us so much trouble.

IRA FLATOW: But there are animals– and you talk about this in your book– that carry diseases. Did we make that animal a pest?

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: In some cases, yes, and in some cases, no. I mean, we carry diseases, too, as you may have noticed.

IRA FLATOW: Fair enough. Fair enough.

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: But in a lot of cases– for example, animals that carry diseases and live in close association with us– we’ve brought to where they live today. We’ve brought pigeons to urban environments. We have created places where pigeons and rats love to live. We brought them there, and then we got mad when they did well.

IRA FLATOW: I want to bring our listeners in. If you have questions for Bethany this hour, what’s your take on pests, maybe you have your own view about it. Our number, 844-724-8255, 844-SCI-TALK. Or you can tweet us, @scifri.

We share a common pest. Because your book starts with a character named Kevin. Actually, a more descriptive name for him, effing Kevin. And Kevin is a squirrel. And I’ve had my own experiences with squirrels. Tell us about Kevin.

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: You have your own Kevin. I’m so sorry. Kevin– well, to be clear, there are at least six Kevins in my backyard. We just call them all Kevin.


BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: And Kevin has prevented me from growing any tomatoes in my garden for the past five years at least. He finds the tomatoes when they’re green. He takes a nice big bite. And then, every single time, he seems to remember that he doesn’t actually like tomatoes.


BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: So he leaves the rest of it always right there, just right on the porch, where you can see it.

IRA FLATOW: I’m with you on this.

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: Oh, it’s a mockery.

IRA FLATOW: And not only that, but I remember– because I had a tomato plant just like you described– I planted a hot pepper plant right next to it. And my Kevin saw the plant, picked out the hottest pepper that Kevin could find, took it over to the window where I was looking at Kevin, and ate it right in front of me, staring in my eyes. Saying, oh, yeah, you think this is tough? Give me a toughie.

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: Ew, you’ve got a hardcore one. Your Kevin is metal.

IRA FLATOW: But I have to admit that they are the most creative animals I’ve ever seen. They’re acrobatic. They’re trapeze artists. They’re tightrope walkers. They’re just amazing to watch. I have to give them credit for that.

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: And they have phenomenal spatial memories. Which is part of why they recognize that they can keep coming back to your garden.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, absolutely. And you write that pests are a problem as old as ownership. What do you mean by that?

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: Well, in order to have a pest– a pest is different from a predator, right, because a predator is something that attacks us. A pest is a little bit less than that. They’re something that attacks our stuff. Which means that you have to have stuff. You have to have an idea that you own something that you don’t want other people to get. And so, really, if you don’t own things, you can’t have pests. You can only have competition.

Once you start setting food aside, storing it, then you start to have pests.

IRA FLATOW: And that pretty sums up the origin of the house mice, right?

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: It does. Yes, the house mouse dates back to between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago, in the Natufian Period, in an area in the Middle East. And yes, we’ve had house mice since we had houses. And that was before we even had agriculture. The instant we started storing food and staying in one place, house mice were there.

IRA FLATOW: And as you say, I think people see pests as cheaters in a way, I mean, that they’re mooching off of humans. But you argue that they’re really just winners because they’re able to so skillfully do that.

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: Right. I mean, when we take advantage of other species, are you going to call us moochers because we’re good hunters?

IRA FLATOW: I’ve got a few people.


BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: Animals– we create niches that allow animals to thrive. We create piles of garbage that allow rats and mice to get by. We create beautiful cities that offer wonderful perching spots for sparrows and pigeons. And then we get angry because they’re doing so well, when we built the spaces that they inhabit.

IRA FLATOW: So we’re creating the environment so that they can flourish and do what they do?

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: Right. And often we bring them to new places. So for example, it’s our ships that bring rats and mice to islands, or snakes to islands. It’s us as colonists that bring cats to islands, where they can often end up as invasive species, eating animals that have never seen a predator before.

IRA FLATOW: That’s a fascinating story in your book about cats. Tell us that story.

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: Yeah. So I will say first I am a cat lover. I have two cats. So this was hard. But yes, cats are estimated to slaughter between 1 and 4 billion birds a year in the United States alone. The real problems are on island habitats. When people bring cats, the cats sometimes escape, they go feral. And if there are animals that have never seen a cat before– maybe there are birds that don’t fly or small rodents that are native to the island that have never seen a cat– cats can drive those species extinct. And it’s now thought that they played a role in at least 63 extinctions around the world.

IRA FLATOW: No kidding. Wow. And another theme in the book is that people will rage war to get rid of pests. And that was the point about the Burmese pythons in the Everglades, another fascinating story.

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: Yes. I had the good luck to go Burmese Python hunting in the Everglades during one of the yearly Python challenges, where they actually send hunters out on the levees in the Everglades to try and bring in– the most pythons wins $10,000. And it’s a fascinating example of just what people will do to try and get rid of an animal that they’ve called a pest.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Janet in Martha’s Vineyard. Hi, Janet. Welcome to Science Friday. You’re first up this hour

JANET: Oh, good. You know, it’s a very odd thing. I went to the library this afternoon. I live in Martha’s Vineyard, in West Tisbury. On the shelf was this book, called Pests. I don’t remember ordering it. So I talked to Laura. She said, oh, I thought of you when I ordered this book. And in the back was the author with a white rat on her shoulder. So that made me very happy.

I have a pet– well, I rescued a baby rat. Now, I’m not afraid of rats and mice or anything like that. The poor thing was near the manure pile. I have a horse. And it was ice cold. I picked it up in my hand. It fit very– it was so small, it fit in the palm of my hand. So I thought, oh, god, why are you sending me this? Because he always does it.

I brought him in the house and put him in an aquarium with some nice woolly things, which I warmed up in the dryer. And I thought, what am I going to do? So I got him warm. And I had an eyedropper, which I keep for weird occasions like this. And I only had canned milk in the house. I did not have kitten milk replacer, which is what most vets want you to use for wildlife.

And I thought, well, he’s either going to die– the vets were all closed at this point– and he drank some milk. To make a long story short, he is still with me. He’s about 4 and 1/2 months old. He still drinks milk, but he likes lots of different foods. And he’s very friendly with me. He makes eye contact. I can actually put him in a trance when I turn him over and rub his stomach. Because I guess rats like their stomachs rubbed.

IRA FLATOW: So you don’t consider him a pest– or any rats a pest?

JANET: No, I don’t. I mean, I heard somewhere that rats have been alive since the dinosaurs. So they must have some kind of intelligence to stay– when the dinosaurs passed on, they did not.

IRA FLATOW: Well, Janet, thank you for that story. Let me go to Bethany. There’s something you must have heard of.



BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: Oh, yes. Yes, the rat on my shoulder in my photo for my book, her name was Magrat. She was a rat of my friends, and she is missed. She passed away a little bit after that photo was taken. But she was a wonderful rat. And she did not actually poop or pee on me during the entire photo session. Which for a rat that poops or pees up to 80 times a day is really very impressive.

IRA FLATOW: This was a Central Casting rat, obviously.

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: Oh, yes. She was a natural.

IRA FLATOW: Yes. Knew a photo session when it saw it.

Our number, 844-724-8255.

I also find the villain origin story of pigeons remarkable, too. We bred them to help us until we said, eh, not anymore. Tell us that story.

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: Yeah, I hate to say that I have a favorite pest. Because how can one choose the favorite of one’s children? But they might be the pigeons. Don’t tell the others.

I love pigeons because they highlight, I guess you could say, our hypocrisy. For many, many years, pigeons were highly valued members of our society. We domesticated the pigeon about 5,000 years ago. And we used them because pigeons are wonderful messengers. They have this amazing ability. They go out in the morning. They feed themselves. And they come right back to where they started. And they never lose their way. And they can do this for hundreds of miles. So they make wonderful messengers.

They provide lots of pigeon poo, which makes a great fertilizer. And they provide delicious pigeon. Which if you’ve ever eaten pigeon, it’s actually really tasty. And so we brought the pigeon around the world with us because it was incredibly useful. People bred the pigeon for its looks. They bred them as messengers. Darwin devoted a large section of On the Origin of Species to the pigeon.

And then we developed the telephone and chemical fertilizer and chicken. And the pigeons stopped being useful to us. And we let it go. And it’s been fascinating. You can actually look– one of my sources, Colin Jerolmack, actually looked at references in The New York Times to the pigeon over a 100-year span, and watched the pigeon go from noble and innocent and loyal to a rat with wings. Over a single century.

IRA FLATOW: A rat with wings was coined not too long ago, wasn’t it?

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: Yes. I believe it was 1967. Yes.

IRA FLATOW: Yes. This is Science Friday, from WNYC Studios.

I’m talking with Bethany Brookshire, author of Pests.

What kind of reaction have you gotten about your book? Are people saying you got it all wrong, or, gee, you got to see the pests in my backyard? Come, and you might change your tune about pests.

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: I will say I get some very interested unsolicited photography–


BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: –of animals, some in stages of death.


BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: Which is odd, but amusing, I suppose. So yes, I’ve gotten some interesting photographs. I get a lot of stories. It’s funny, when you start writing about pests or telling people that you’re going to write about pests, everyone has a story of an animal that just drives them bonkers.

IRA FLATOW: Right. And that’s what’s surprising and wonderful to read about in your book, how many of the animals you wrote about are pests– rabbits, sparrows, feral cats. I mean, where do we draw the line between friend or foe here?

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: Yeah, it really is a matter of perspective. If an animal is where you want it to be, it’s often a beloved pet. It’s often food. It’s often beautiful wildlife. It’s when that animal comes into a space that we’ve decided is ours, right, when it challenges our sense of power and our sense of control, then, suddenly, we aren’t so happy to see them.

IRA FLATOW: And thinking of some of these animals as pests is sort of a Western value at times, is it not?

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: It is in a lot of ways, yeah. It’s what I call, and what other researchers call, a dominion-associated mindset. And it’s not universal. I was very lucky to be able to learn from a bunch of Indigenous peoples in various locations around the world. And for many of them, they don’t actually like the word “pest.” They don’t use it. Because they don’t think of themselves as being in charge.

And if you don’t think of yourself as being in charge of your environment, it’s really hard to think of other animals as being evil or bad or causing you problems. You don’t own the place, so they belong there, too.

IRA FLATOW: I see. It gives them equal treatment. They’re not pests. They just live here with us.

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: I wouldn’t call it equal necessarily. And certainly, you don’t always get along with your neighbors. But they are neighbors. They are other members of the society in which you live. And you give them consideration, as other organisms that have the right to live where you do.

IRA FLATOW: Let me see if I can get a quick call in before the break. Holly, in Oklahoma City. Hi, Holly.

HOLLY: Hi. Yeah, I’m so excited about this topic. I’ll definitely check out that book immediately. And I wanted to make sure [AUDIO OUT] about the insect pests that get so disrespected.

IRA FLATOW: Do you have some in particular? Yes, which insects are pests?

HOLLY: Yeah, I do. I do have a particular one. Tomato hornworms is one example. I have a lot of gardening friends, and they all talk about squishing those things the minute they find them. And that just makes me wince. Because tomato hornworms become beautiful, fantastic hawk moths. And I have found that if I have a successful tomato crop in a given year, I can easily share with them, and there’s room for everybody.

IRA FLATOW: There you go.

HOLLY: And I don’t have to kill those gorgeous creatures.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Thank you. Another quick one, Holly. I got to go.

HOLLY: I do have another one. Snails. People try to kill snails in their yard.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, snails, yeah.

HOLLY: And they don’t realize that snail larvae are one of the main foods of firefly larvae, which we’re running out of. So I just wanted to point that one out.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, that’s good. I’m going to look at them differently. Bethany, snails?

HOLLY: There are actually no invertebrates in my book, I’m sorry to say. That’s in part because there are other excellent books. There’s an entire book on the mosquito, actually. But I thought that vertebrates better highlighted our conflict with the animals in our midst.

IRA FLATOW: I agree. One of the more interesting– not that there was anything not interesting in your book, it’s a wonderful book Bethany– but what really hit home to me about how you classify pests is the story about elephants. Who can think of an elephant as a pest unless you live by the elephants, right– live near them?

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: Well, that’s the thing you live near them.


Yeah. And this was one of the themes that I wanted to highlight in the book is that so often what we call a pest is a matter of belief. It’s what you believe about the animals. And a lot of us in the Global North believe that animals– that elephants in particular– are wise and beautiful and clever and sweet. And they are. They are all of those things. I have seen elephants in the wild, and they are wonderful.

But the people who live with them also deal with a lot of human-wildlife conflict. And that’s not just the human-wildlife conflict we often think of, such as poaching, which does still happen. But now there is less and less poaching and there is more conflict, where you often have elephants trampling and eating people’s crops.

And now, for example, in West Africa, African elephants kill about 200 people per year and cause millions of dollars in crop damages. And so there are some people in Africa and in Asia who would say, yeah, elephants can be pests.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And you mentioned that if people store grain in their homes, the elephant will knock the house down to get in.



BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: I met a woman who lost her house and her entire crop to an elephant.

IRA FLATOW: And people have tried creative ways to keep the elephants away. You talk about them trying bees, which you have discovered elephants hate.

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: Yes. And it’s so funny, because Pliny, the Elder, spread this myth around that elephants hate mice, but it’s not true. They hate bees instead. Yeah, and this was actually a scientist, Lucy King, who developed the Elephants and Bees Project. And she found, through study and also from learning from the Indigenous people, the Maasai, who live with elephants, that elephants don’t want to feed from trees that have bees in them because bee stings hurt.

And so if you set up fences full of beehives around crops, you can actually prevent elephants from coming by. And so now they’re spreading these beehive fences. I think they’ve put them up in more than 20 countries at this point.

IRA FLATOW: And the farmers can’t kill the elephants because it upsets Westerners.

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: Well, it upsets their own governments. And also, people who live with elephants do have respect for elephants. They don’t want to kill these animals. They’re often a very important part of their culture. They’re an important part of their history. In some cases, they’re an important part of their religion. But most importantly, on a day-to-day basis, if someone in Kenya, for example, kills an elephant by accident or on purpose, they face millions of shillings– which is the Kenyan monetary system– in fines and life in prison.



IRA FLATOW: Let’s move to a different topic. Andrea, in Texas, welcome to Science Friday.

ANDREA: Hi there. This is Andrea. I’m in Texas, Central Texas, in New Braunfels. I just wanted to call and comment. I’ve always loved deer, white-tailed deer. We have a huge population here. Until I moved to a certain area where they are just– there’s so many of them, I had never– I hate them so much now. They’ve eaten so many of my plants. I can’t tell you how much money I’ve spent on replacing plants that they don’t always eat. They take a bite of, they pull them out, and leave them there. Kind of like heaven, I guess, just more of a burden.

But yeah, there’s so many here. And their population has just gotten too big. And you see too many of them dead on the side of the road, getting hit, and people injured in car wrecks, and everything. So they’re pretty much a pest in our area.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, Andrea, I don’t mean to laugh because I know how pest-ful, or pesty, deer can be in my own backyard.

ANDREA: Yes. Yeah, very much so.

IRA FLATOW: Bethany, what do you think about deer?

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: I wrote an entire chapter on deer. It’s really fascinating that deer have become a pest to so many people. Because we created that problem by killing off another pest, the wolf, that we did not like. And that is part of what has allowed deer to proliferate so much. And the other thing that has really allowed deer to proliferate is that we have allowed the growth of secondary forests.

We often think that, oh, well, we don’t live in the forest. We have to go to the forest. Well, actually, if you live in a leafy suburb, you live in the woods. And that means you live in beautiful deer habitat. And we grow so many beautiful plants that we plant, both the decorative ones– hostas are pretty tasty– as well as the ones we grow in our gardens. We provide amazing food for deer. And then we don’t allow their predators to flourish.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I plead guilty to all of that. Yeah, they’ve eaten a lot of my flowers. I can tell whether a squirrel has eaten it, whether a rabbit’s eaten it, by where it eats it on the plant.

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: RIP your tulips. I’m sorry.

IRA FLATOW: The lilies, they love to take the top of the lilies off.

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: Oh, they do love lilies. Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: They love lilies. I hardly ever see my lilies.

Let’s go to John, in Richland, Washington. Hi, John.

JOHN: Hello. Yep. Yep. I’m here. Hello. Thank you for the call.


JOHN: And Bethany, I really look forward to reading the book. It sounds amazing. It’s right up my alley. I’m a lifelong birdwatcher. And in my backyard this year, I had a bird that’s really quite rare, called a Townsend’s Solitaire. And I was so excited about it. And I was watching it and reading in the book its behavior and then watching its behavior out my back door.

And we were watching my cat for my daughter, who’s at college. My cat isn’t confident. She’s declawed. She’s not a fearsome predator. And she got to one bird in my backyard. She got to that Townsend’s Solitaire somehow and killed it. And now I have this annoying pest. My pet is my pest.

IRA FLATOW: So you can’t look lovingly at your cat anymore?

JOHN: It really has altered my relationship in a significant manner. I’m really frustrated. Because I got so much joy out of having that bird in my backyard. I mean, it’s not the cat’s fault. I can’t be mad at the cat, but still.

IRA FLATOW: Sorry to hear that.

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: It is very sad. I was so excited to hear about your Sterling, and then it took a dark turn.

JOHN: Yes. Yeah, I’m sorry to bring that down on us. But I mean, it could have been a house sparrow, which has adapted everywhere, as I’m sure you know, like pigeons almost. But anyway.

IRA FLATOW: All right.

JOHN: Well, thank you for the call.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you for letting us know about it and sharing your experiences with us. Thank you, John.

Yeah, cats can be pests, right? I mean, there have been cat wars.

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: Yes. Oh, yeah. There’s, in fact, an entire book, called Cat Wars. Yes. And it’s also really fascinating how, because of what we believe about cats and because we do see and love cats, it can be really hard for us to deal with them when they do cause problems to endangered species, for example. Because people really don’t want to kill animals that they love. But sometimes, in island situations, there’s very little else that can be done.

IRA FLATOW: You write about cats wiping out the mouse population of a whole island.

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: Yes. Yes. Isla [INAUDIBLE], I think, yeah, off Southern California, in Mexico. Yeah. And I mean, they’re most famous probably for wiping out the Stephens Island wren. But certainly those two species are not alone. Cats are obligate carnivores. They love live prey. They’re doing what they do. And we have brought them to ecosystems where the animals just aren’t capable of handling it.

IRA FLATOW: We gotcha you. Let’s go to Rick, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Hi, Rick.

RICK: Hi. I had a comment. I teach environmental science, and terminology is so important in science for defining things. But in environmental science it gets a little tough because we try and put boxes and definitions, and there’s so many human-centric definitions when it comes to especially environmental science. And when we talk about pests, I reference a lot that we humans came up with that term, and life doesn’t care what we call it.

And I thought it was interesting that deer were brought up earlier. Because I teach my students every year that white-tailed deer that we consider huge pests in New England, with eating flowers and car accidents and stuff, how they were endangered at one point in time. At the end of the 1800s, early 1900s, they were almost extinct. And they were a resource for us. And then, once we stopped hunting them and we started buying produced meat from farms and stuff like that, their populations came back. And also with the disappearance of wolves, now suddenly they’re a pest for us.

IRA FLATOW: Well, thank you for telling us about that.

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: Well, and they’re not the only species. We did almost wipe out the white-tailed deer. We also almost wiped out the turkey, the wild turkey, and the black bear from the Eastern United States. And now all of those species are thriving in the new habitats that we’ve created. And we’re starting to be bothered by pretty much all of them.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Thank you, Rick, for sharing that with us.

Let’s go to Elise, in Ashland, Wisconsin. Hi. Welcome to Science Friday.

ELISE: Oh, hi. This is Elise. Can you hear me?

IRA FLATOW: I sure can. Go ahead.

ELISE: Excellent. Well, I just wanted to say a few words about the sea lamprey which, as you probably know, is a really dangerous invasive species up in the Great Lakes because of its ability to adapt, to travel as larva in bilge water, or to just swim up rivers or canals that humans have dug. They’ve been in all the Great Lakes for, I think, going on 90 years now. And they’re a really serious danger to the ecosystem. And again, that’s because they adapted to opportunities we gave them.

But what’s so striking to me is that they were the seafood of royalty across two and 1/2 continents, near as I can tell. All across Western and Central Europe, Northern African, in Japan and parts of Eastern Asia, the lamprey, the sea lamprey, was the traditional food of nobles. It’s supposed– because it’s such an unusual species– it’s supposed to taste like a mushroom, I’ve heard. Of course, now, it’s very hard to do this safely because they’ve been exposed to so much– the ones we have here have been exposed to so much mercury pollution.

But yeah, I like to think there’s a metaphor there. It’s the seafood of kings. And just as the king is a parasite on the people, so the food of kings is a parasite on other fish. And a final funny moment is that because they’re doing it for King Charles’s coronation, they’re actually serving a lamprey pie, and I’ve heard that the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is going to get a royal stamp as the official providers of lampreys provided to the King of England.

IRA FLATOW: That’s a great story. I got to end it there because I got to go. But thank you for sharing that. That’s a great story.

So Bethany, you’ve given us a lot to think about. What was the biggest lesson that you learned in writing this book?

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: Oh, man, there are so many. I would say the biggest lesson is it’s all too easy, at the end– as one of the callers said– a pest is what we call it. It’s not what these animals do. And it’s so very easy at the end to just say, oh, well, the real pest here is the humans. We’re a scourge upon the planet. We are so mean. But one of the things I learned is we don’t have to live this way. We don’t have to be this way. We can be different. And there are different ways of co-existing with the animals in our environments.

And so it was really fascinating to realize that we can change our perspectives and we can change our practices, and we can achieve better coexistence without always having to go to war against pests.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And it’s something I learned the hard way as a gardener in my backyard, that you’re not going to win this war.

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: Have you tried a good gardener’s cage?

IRA FLATOW: Yes. I have kept out– my strawberry patch has a good gardener’s cage in it. And you’re right. But there are animals that burrow underground. I’ve started noticing all kinds of different ways that animals will win this war, if you want to call it a war. So you have to coexist, right?

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: I mean, we don’t have to. But it’s a choice that we can make. And it’s one that I think would probably serve us and our environments better in the long run.

IRA FLATOW: Let me see if I can end with a question or two from someone who’s been hanging on quite a while here, Brian, in Southampton, New York. Hi, Brian.


IRA FLATOW: Go for it.

BRIAN: Yes. Although my comment and question is about an invertebrate, I think that we can weave it into the story. Because this pest, I believe, has had a very strong redemptive arc. This pest has a very good PR team. And I’m talking about the spider. In my lifetime, spiders have gone from eek, scream, squish, to, oh– the children in my life– don’t kill it, don’t kill it. Put a cup over it and put it outside. So it feels like, at least in my experience, some of us have turned a corner with the spider.

IRA FLATOW: That’s a good way to end. Because yes, people really hate spiders, don’t they, Bethany?

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: I mean, some people do. But that’s one of the things, the more you learn, the more knowledge you have about the animals that you live with, the more you begin to realize their value and learn to coexist a little bit.

IRA FLATOW: And so just chill out a little bit and try to learn how to live with these animals.

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: Yeah. Knowledge is power.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Well, where do you go from here? What’s your next idea about pests? Are you writing anything else?

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: Oh, that’s a lot of pressure.


I’m still thinking about pests, honestly. There are so many animals that didn’t make it into the book that could have.

IRA FLATOW: And why didn’t they make it into the book?

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: I mostly tried to focus on animals, where their stories highlighted the five themes that I really saw as being essential to the definition of pest. But many other animals could have stood in for the animals that I ended up focusing on.

IRA FLATOW: Well, it’s an excellent book, Bethany. Thank you for taking time to join us today.

BETHANY BROOKSHIRE: Thank you so much for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Bethany Brookshire is a science journalist, author of Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She’s based in Cheverly, Maryland. And you can read an excerpt from the book. Go to our website, sciencefriday.com/pests.

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About Rasha Aridi

Rasha Aridi is a producer for Science Friday. She loves stories about weird critters, science adventures, and the intersection of science and history.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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