February 22, 2015

On 'pests' and 'vermin'

Our house mouse population is at one of its intermittent peaks. We're catching one every day or so in our humane trap, necessitating a trip to the local park for release. I'm under no illusions that they all go on to live a happy and productive life out in the open, and every time I tip one out, trembling, tiny and disorientated, I feel enormous guilt. But we can't put poison down because of the dog, and the snap-traps we tried didn't always kill them cleanly, which was far worse. As for those things you plug in, if they are at all effective (which I doubt) the risk is either that the dog would be disturbed by the ultrasound, or the electric circuit might mess with my husband's work computers and equipment. So the box trap, baited with peanut butter, is the best solution.

Not that I would mind living with them if only they didn't shit in my casserole dishes and wake us up with their gnawing and squeaking. I don't think we'll ever get rid of them entirely – this is an old house and worse, very bodged-about, with far too many gaps and crannies ever to block up. All our food is in tupperware so there is little real damage they can do; I suppose they live off tiny crumbs and the odd dropped grain of rice. The truth is, they're just trying to get by, like the rest of us.

It can be hard to think of house mice as 'wildlife', though. We have a different category – 'pests', or 'vermin' – for the few creatures that have learned to tolerate us, like pigeons and rats; a way of othering them, calling them something that makes us feel less guilty when we maim and poison them than if they really were wildlife, just like thrushes or lizards or stag beetles. Some people do the same with foxes, or try to: by hysterically and wrong-headedly conjuring up a list of imaginary offences against humankind (whose priorities are, of course, the only ones that count) they feel justified in hunting animals whose only offence, in truth, is being seen too often, and not showing the usual terrified deference to us that allows us to revel in that age-old Biblical myth of dominion.

But the terrified deference of animals is, to me, deeply troubling, and a cause of what Robert Macfarlane refers to in his brilliant new book, Landmarks, as 'species shame'. To our own ends we despoil or irrevocably alter their habitats, changing the environment (even the temperature) faster than they can keep up. We hunt and kill them for food and (worse) for fun – and so they have learned everywhere to flee from us. I find few things more poignant than accounts of animals in remote corners of the world who approach humans, curiously; few things more joyful than the idea that dolphins (for instance) may choose, on occasion, our company. We have been thrown out of the animal kingdom as out of an Eden – quite rightly – so that everything fears us, and we are almost entirely alone. There is an injury in that that should not be underestimated; one that the keeping of docile pets cannot ever assuage.

And so I find joy in our city foxes and beauty in pigeons' agile flight, and while I admit I curse the mice when they keep me awake at night, I admire their industry and their chutzpah in wanting to living as close to me as they do. These creatures are wildlife, just like anything else, and because my own priorities are not the only ones that matter, I am very glad to share a city with them.