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A Vegan Angel … of Death

By Piper Hoffman — October 21, 2013

The AntsIt all started with the sound of a plastic bag crinkling. I was home alone at night, watching TV in the living room. The noise didn’t stop. Figuring it was one of my cats, I got up quietly to try to catch the miscreant in the act of breaking into our food.

The kitchen was empty. The noise continued.

I moved next into the bedroom and turned on the light. And there they were: Hundreds, thousands of swarming winged ants, blanketing the large window frame and the wall next to my bed. Where I sleep. On the floor and baseboard, hordes of their wingless minions, worker ants who can’t reproduce, scuttled back and forth, so dense that I could barely see the wooden slats beneath them.

There were so many swarmers that the sound of their wings had carried 50 feet and over the sound of the television to the living room couch.

Heart pounding, I ran out of the room and slammed the door shut. A primal fear of attack and violation turned to anger. I am vegan – I’m an ally of living creatures, so how dare they invade my home? It turns out that the compassion (and rationality) I am so proud of has limits, though I don’t know if the line is drawn at the borders of my turf or by species. Whatever the reason, these ants inside my castle made my hair stand on end, and I wanted every one of them dead and gone.

Vegan or not, I grabbed the iPad and looked up exterminators. I called the two that looked eco-friendly, and both said they would call me back soon. I sat on the edge of the couch clutching the phone, too tense to follow the Downton Abbey story line about whether my favorite character would be hanged. I kept getting up to check for ants escaping from the bedroom.

Neither exterminator called back.

Finally I grabbed my wallet, fled the house in pajama bottoms and a jacket, and bought two cans of Raid from the corner bodega. When I got home I braved the bedroom and started spraying, two-fisted gunslinger style. The window frame, the blinds, the window – even the crown molding that I couldn’t spray without standing on the bed – were crawling with ants. Then I doused the wingless bugs on the radiator, baseboards, and floor. The one that landed on the bedspread. The one on the sheets.

They dropped like flies, so to speak, but that made me feel despicable. Angry, grossed out, and justified, but also fearful and needlessly cruel. The ants caught in the pesticide on the floor convulsed, apparently struggling to escape the toxic puddles. I don’t know what ants can feel, but they looked like they were in agony, and I was the reason.

I had felt so threatened that I wanted to demolish them, but when I saw their helplessness and the suffering I caused them I felt like a monster. Vacuuming up the piles of carcasses the next day made me want to cry, even as I feared that every twinge I felt was an ant on my skin.

Ant expert William Mackay, a professor of biology at the University of Texas at El Paso, broke the disturbing news: “They probably have a nest in the walls of your house.” As he predicted, an exterminator found their nest in the exterior wall above the patio door, just below the bedroom. When this seasoned professional called it “a nightmare,” I felt a little better about freaking out. Also about hiring an exterminator. If I hadn’t, the ants would have returned.

Still beating myself up, I asked Mackay how much my victims had suffered. He said that “theoretically, insects don’t feel pain.” There isn’t much controversy about it among experts, he told me.

When I pressed him about that “theoretically,” Mackay admitted, “We just assume that insects don’t feel pain. We assume that fish don’t feel pain and worms don’t feel pain.” As a vegan I try to err on the safe side and assume that fish do feel pain. In fact, there is a great deal of evidence that they do. I had assumed the ants did too.

Assumptions are tricky things. Descartes assumed that non-human animals could not feel pain. He cut dogs and rabbits open and messed with their innards, breaking bones and cutting organs, while they were still alive. He dismissed others’ observations that the animals were screaming and appeared to be trying to escape by comparing them to machines: Their reactions were just reflexes, he believed, not a sign of suffering. Descartes’ experiments – essentially in vivo autopsies – seem barbaric now that the consensus has swung the other way on vertebrates’ capacity to feel pain. The same could very well happen to experts’ assumptions about insects.

Mackay, with 45 years of ant experience behind him, backed up his stance with an anecdote. Ants will “get in fights, and the abdomen part will be ripped away, and the ants will run around for days. They aren’t affected by it.” But by that logic U.S. gymnast Kerri Strug felt no pain when she injured her ankle, then went on to stick her vault at the 1996 Olympics. She looked the picture of health sprinting up to the horse (though she collapsed as soon as she finished). Who’s to say that injured ants aren’t doing the same thing? Running around because they have to, running through the pain?

Anyway, if Mackay is right and ants don’t feel pain, what was the Raid-induced thrashing about? Mackay believes my little victims were “writhing around because they couldn’t control their bodies,” not because they were suffering. Most insecticides, he explained, work by blocking acetylcholinesterase, which breaks down acetylcholine remaining in the synapse after a neuron fires. If acetylcholine sits around between two nerve cells, it makes the nervous system keep firing, and that can mean convulsions.

But could convulsions mean pain too? I’m still not sure.

I have yet to find a kind way to evict hordes of winged ants. Later Internet research yielded: Rubbing garlic or hot peppers around the perimeters of windows and other points of entry, placing various plants in front of my building, and catching and releasing individuals. It was a little late for garlic or the magical plant border, and while I do catch and release when I find a lone bug in the house (a whiskey glass and a magazine subscription card do the job nicely), more drastic measures are required to defenestrate a mob.

I could take comfort in the fact that I followed the vegan creed of not harming sentient beings to use them for my own purposes. Instead I reflexively defended myself from what felt like an attack. But my motivation mattered little to the ants, who suffered painful (or not?) deaths regardless of my motive.

Massacring ants is hardly the first compromise I’ve made as a vegan. Back before digital cameras, I took photos, even though film contains animal-derived products. Car tires still do, yet I have a car. I directly pay for the torture of many more animals by buying cat food, which most decidedly does not come from animals who lived happy lives ending in natural deaths. The ants were not this vegan’s first victims, nor will they be my last.

An imperfect person in an imperfect world, I do my best to minimize my body count and to inspire others to do the same. Sending the message that being vegan means living with insect infestations is not inspiring to others or tolerable to me. I am not an impervious ascetic and not an angel. I am just a vegan, one who now jumps at the sound of plastic crinkling.


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(23) Readers Comments

  1. October 21, 2013 at 9:17 am

    Great piece! I would've handled the issue exactly the same way. A "perfect vegan" doesn't exist simply because it is an impossibility. We all—vegans and everyone else—draw our moral lines and circles somewhere. Some of us just happen to do so more ethically. But make no mistake, even vegans draw lines, and that's OK. Sometimes, the issue isn't whether doing something that violates some purported code of veganism is right or wrong, but whether it is right or wrong to actually criticize the behavior. In this case, criticizing Piper's act would be wrong.

    • October 21, 2013 at 11:08 am

      Thank you, Vadim! I found out that sometimes I have to draw lines in the moment, fueled by adrenaline, which is hard to swallow for a vegan who tries to think rationally about living ethically. Sometimes rationality goes out the window, like I wish those ants would have.

  2. October 21, 2013 at 11:57 am

    Piper, I understand what you're saying. It is hard for us to deal with certain situations, like this one, isn't it? But you did make the right decision, and I would have done that as well, even though I would have had the full range of thoughts and doubts and emotions that you did. I think that's very normal for us, given that we live our lives to purposefully not harm animals and to do everything we can to help them. And, I, also personally, like you, err on the side of caution in assuming that everyone, no matter who, how large, how small, what species, etc., can suffer and feel pain. I'm like you, and many others, I'm sure, in that I'll rescue an individual insect and carry them outside. I've rescued a baby mouse from inside of a plant nursery (that's built in the middle of the desert and leaves all the doors open....don't they think mice will come in), where they were going to smash him. I said I wanted the mouse, and since I was buying plants, they reluctantly gave him to me, and I took him a couple of acres away, back in to the desert and freed him (I've always hoped I took him far enough from any structures that he would live a life free of human interaction, from that point on). I'm sure they thought I was an alien life form of some sort. But, both I and the mouse do not care what they thought. :) Anyway, back to the point. I would have still done the same as you, in this case. I would have been completely unnerved by having that many insects in my home and I would have had to resort to the extermination, etc. As you said, we are imperfect people living in an imperfect world, and we truly try our very best. I (and everyone one I personally know) is still in the position of driving a car, and I too, buy my cats' food, which is most definitely not vegan. I realize we all have to draw our own line, but I wouldn't be able to live in my home if it was infested with any species. I'd have to figure out the best thing to do, just as you did, and you did the best thing. We can't feel guilty or remorseful for not wanting to live in homes with tons of insects and whatnot. Great, honest, thought-provoking article and I strongly believe that these are things we all need to share. Keep being your awesome self Piper!

  3. October 21, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    I too think it's unlikely that ants 'feel' pain. Pain is comprised of two parts: 1) the reflex moving away from a noxious stimulus (nociception), and 2) the feeling of pain (the phenomenolgical component). From what we currently know, insects appear to lack sufficiently complex brains for the capacity to feel, so they can't truly be said to experience pain. That said, we used to think the same of fish, crabs, and lobsters but recent research suggests we were wrong. That said, even if we thought ants had a right against being made to feel pain, that wouldn't necessarily apply if the ants were threatening us or invading our homes. I'm not sure if a proportionate response to an ant invasion is extermination, but you could probably make a good case that the only reasonable way to protect yourself and your property in the circumstances was to break out the Raid.

    • Piper Hoffman
      October 21, 2013 at 3:35 pm

      Hi Steve. One thing I wonder about when scientists say that other species don't have an ability we do, like feeling pain: what if the species has the same or a similar capacity, but it is mediated by a physiological mechanism that looks completely different from ours? Their brains may not share the features that make us feel pain, but maybe they have some other pathway that causes the same effect. If that were the case, it would take even longer for researchers to get past the Cartesian "it's just a reflex" reasoning.

  4. October 21, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    Excellent article that debunks the "veganism is perfectionism" myth! I'm in the same situation regarding the fleas on my dog... sometimes you have to do what you have to do.

  5. October 21, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    Wow. Excellent article! As a vegan, I, too, struggle with the same thoughts and emotions over ethical questions like this. I've never had such a serious one as this type of infestation to confront yet. Simple ant trails and single critters can be dealt with without any suffering or death. However, when I'm spending hours/days dealing with ant trails, I get annoyed that I have this strong compulsion not to harm, when others can just wipe them up and go on with their day.

    • Piper Hoffman
      October 21, 2013 at 3:36 pm

      Hi Sharon. I think your sentiment applies to so many situations. Life is easier when you don't give a damn. It's a pain for us but a good thing for the world that some of us can't help giving a damn.

      • October 21, 2013 at 5:24 pm

        Agreed. I give thanks every day for all the vegans in the world.

  6. October 21, 2013 at 6:48 pm

    As a 23 year vegan realist, I understand the concern. But I have drawn a line - and it is drawn at insects. I don't go out of my way to kill bugs, but I don't lose sleep over killing them either. Or, every time I drove or mowed the lawn, I'd be racked with guilt. The simple fact is, every kind of farming (including organic) kills bugs. I think vegans have a hard enough time getting mainstream acceptance as it is - when we start complaining about insects being killed (and that includes honey in my book - which I do sometimes eat), we lose the much easier argument on compassion for other animal species. Fleas, mosquitoes, ticks, etc... Sorry - I will kill you on the spot and not feel bad. Roaches/ants in my house - same. You're gone (hopefully in a non-toxic way). Let's put the focus on animal cruelty where it rightly belongs.

    • Piper Hoffman
      October 22, 2013 at 10:42 am

      Hi Rory. Interesting point about how we come off to the general public. Making veganism come off as too difficult or loony won't help us attract more people to the cause. I know that insects and even mammals die in the process of harvesting the food I eat, for instance, but I keep eating it. Still, watching a crowd of ants violently convulse upset me.

  7. October 21, 2013 at 7:04 pm

    Hi Piper, This is my nightmare. I discovered last year that I have a strong allergy to ant-bites--painful red welts and a histamine fugue that can knock me out for a couple of days :(. I have very reluctantly treated anthills in my yard with an ant-killing substance that is supposed to be non-toxic to other animals/birds on a couple of occasions when the ant population encroached into the space that I use a lot. They are quite protective of their homes, and will attack if I seem to be threatening them (such as when I mow the grass or use the weed-eater), so I have very sadly done the same. I don't question that they feel pain, I'm sure they do. I hate causing them pain and death, and I wrestle with the decision each time. If they came into my home I imagine I would reach the same decision. I can tolerate the lone stray insects or spiders that enter my home by capturing and releasing them. En masse they pose a threat though, and I have to think of it differently, as you did. Thanks for the honest article. As vegans we want to share our world in a non-violent, non-exploitive way with other earthlings. That doesn't mean we can always share our space when our needs are in direct conflict.

    • Piper Hoffman
      October 22, 2013 at 10:48 am

      Hi Ann. You hit the nail on the head. Sometimes our needs are in direct conflict with those of non-human creatures. It would be unrealistic and self-defeating to sacrifice ourselves for others. We aren't required to do that even for other humans.

    • Kristen
      October 22, 2013 at 10:33 pm

      Ann- I am in the same boat as you. And like you, I don't question that ants feel pain. Moreover, when I have seen ants crawl into bait traps and die, I've noticed that their peers swarm around the trap in a seemed frenzy. It reminded me of how birds swarm around an injured or recently deceased member. I am so glad that Piper posted this article because I too have felt torn on how to handle insects inside the home or along the immediate perimeter of the home. One or two bugs can be humanely relocated whereas an infestation is a bit overwhelming. I have tried the natural deterrents and toxic sprays, the latter of which kept me tossing and turning with guilt all night such that now... i'm simply waiting for the winter cold to knock out the population. I've always been terrified of bugs (severe bug phobia here!) but ever since I've become more active in vegan outreach, I have sort of developed a greater empathy and curiosity about them. I am still trying to figure out how I can address bug issues while remaining consistent with my beliefs and values, but I certainly don't fault you (Piper) for the steps you took. Thank you for posting this article.

      • Piper Hoffman
        October 23, 2013 at 11:37 am

        Kristen, bless your heart for your tossing and turning. Please let us know if you come up with effective, compassionate ways to address bug issues. It seems like lots of people would appreciate it.

  8. Kirsten Bayes
    October 21, 2013 at 8:44 pm

    My mother always took the view that if she went uninvited to a critter's house, she would expect to be bitten. If they came uninvited to her house, they should expect the same. I like to do my best with insects, chasing or putting out individuals, and trying to avoid inadvertently feeding or watering them. The trouble is they can't be reasoned with, and lack complex emotions like fear or worry, so they are hard to communicate with. If they threaten my health or wellbeing and can't be removed in any other way, then I will do what you did. We do the best we can.

    • Piper Hoffman
      October 22, 2013 at 10:50 am

      Hi Kirsten. I love your mom's logic! I agree with your bottom line. We do the best we can.

  9. October 22, 2013 at 6:36 am

    Thank you for sharing this experience. It's very honest of you. But I have to add this: you didn't have to try to justify your actions by bringing up the question of whether insects feel pain. Would you have reacted differently if your house was suddenly invaded by some type of mammal (and we know mammals feel pain)? Unlikely. You're dealing with two separate issues here, and unnecessarily so, in my opinion. Self-defence should be a good enough argument against whoever is jeopardizing your safety, humans included. Of course, our system is set up in a way that better deals with humans than non-human animals in these situations, and that's just unfortunate. But none of this is a good reason for us to deny the possibility that insects may feel pain. I think that reaction is dangerous, cowardly and unfair. Erring on the side of caution in this case means assuming that insects do feel pain until the opposite is proven beyond any shadow of a doubt. Hopefully with this attitude we can help improve the way "experts" deal with these tiny animals in those situations where we can't escape them and when our safety is directly threatened.

    • Piper Hoffman
      October 22, 2013 at 11:01 am

      Hi wildflower. This situation posed a dilemma because it is debatable that I needed to defend myself. The ants were unlikely to hurt me: unlike Ann, I am not allergic to them, and I've never had a black ant in the U.S. bite me (can't say the same for Costa Rica -- do not mess with those ants). I ascribe a large part of the problem to my own ick-reflex, which is speciesist but may also be built into humans as a way to avoid harmful insects. If mice invaded I think I would have gone for humane traps first, but it's hard to predict where the adrenaline would drive me.

      • October 22, 2013 at 11:44 am

        Thanks for your reply. I'm not at all criticizing what you did, I hope that was clear enough. :) I hope I didn't come across as rude in my previous comment. My only criticism was the pain argument. But I really don't see what you could have done instead. Mice might have been easier to handle, but could also be more dangerous in larger numbers, it depends on the specifics. If we are talking about 100s of mice would humane traps even be a realistic option? (I have no idea) I also think it's safer and better for insects (and other animals) to stay away from humans. An occasional ant or spider is easy to deal with, there are humane methods for that, but 100s of them... I can't imagine... (Unless there is a humane solution we're not aware of?) Your reaction is understandable, imo. The alternative would be letting them crawl all over you, or leave your home. To me it seems obvious that the ants got to go. It's unfortunate that we haven't yet developed a more ethically sound method of removing insects from human homes. I'm not saying that killing them isn't a moral issue- because I believe that it is, but that considering your circumstance it is a justifiable (re)action. (and like you say maybe also natural reflex?) This post also made me think about prevention- what can be done to prevent insects from nesting in human homes? Thanks for giving me some food for thought here. :)