We are elated to welcome back to OHH one of our fresh, new writers – Alessandra Seiter. Today, Alessandra, an absolutely brilliant sophomore at Vassar College, is reviewing Trash Animals: How We Live with Nature’s Filthy, Feral, Invasive, and Unwanted Species, which is edited by Kelsi Nagy and Phillip David Johnson II.
Book Review: “Trash Animals: How We Live with Nature’s Filthy, Feral, Invasive, and Unwanted Species”
Review by Alessandra Seiter
On my college campus, squirrels serve as the butt of a running joke, thanks to the bushy-tailed critters’ habit of scrounging for food in open-topped outdoor trash cans. Instagram photos abound of squirrels popping out of garbage receptacles carrying half-eaten slices of pizza in their mouths, eliciting responses of mocking hilarity toward these furry fellow inhabitants of our campus. The college administration, however, has reacted more antagonistically, placing slanted covers over the trash cans to prevent squirrels from entering (or leaving) the bins. This action poses problematic implications for the squirrels who, now accustomed to sustaining themselves in part on our refuse, may find it difficult to re-acclimate to more labor-intensive means of food procurement.
I, as co-president of my campus animal rights group, hesitated to approach the administration regarding this approach to squirrel management, due to my lack of knowledge as to what sort of solution would most benefit both the campus’ squirrels and its humans. Little did I know that a book would soon fall into my life, not necessarily suggesting a solution to the squirrel-trash can problem, but offering an enlightening framework through which to understand it.
Though the anthology Trash Animals: How We Live with Nature’s Filthy, Feral, Invasive, and Unwanted Species (University of Minnesota Press, 2013) does not include a chapter specifically addressing squirrels, it does offer insight into how humans come to view the animals we commonly encounter – and who often make use of our waste – as “[v]armints, vermin, pests, scavengers, [and] nuisances.” Many of the chapters in Trash Animals describe the wars humans have waged in the name of “management” against the species we deem as “overabundant” and those who have adapted well to human-built environments, such as locusts, prairie dogs, pack rats, cockroaches, rats, and pigeons. Because “[t]he majority of these species are viewed as having no economic value or […] as disrupting human enterprise,” their oft-occurring presence in our lives threatens us, especially because they “cannot be easily defined, controlled, or dismissed.”
By holding up a mirror to a humankind bent on manipulating nature to conform to our constructed standards, Trash Animals accurately asserts our responsibility for the proliferation of these so-called problem animals, both through the introduction of nonnative species and the creation of a habitat abundant in edible refuse. Indeed, who can blame the squirrels for feasting on readily available half-eaten sandwiches rather than meticulously gathering chestnuts? Refreshingly, Trash Animals seeks to combat the anthropocentric notion that animals must either serve a human purpose or remain absent from our urban environments in order to merit appreciation and respect; the book attempts, instead, to “understand animals on their own terms.”
Unfortunately, however, only a handful of the anthology’s 17 essays succeed in recognizing their “trash” animal subjects as valuable in their own right. Most of the chapters instead frame the coyote, the mouse, the rattlesnake, etc., as symbols that help us humans better understand ourselves, as showcased by contributor Charles Bergman’s claim that “[e]very animal wears a double face: it is both creature and symbol, fact and analogy.” For example, contributor James E. Bishop sees the curious and adaptable magpie “as a model by which we could live, if we wished to live intentionally and attentively,” while contributor Gavan P.L. Watson insists that the city-dwelling ring-billed gull “has come to represent the results of our own contested urban living arrangements.” Certainly these views of the so-called trash animals prove far less destructive than those that imagine them as dirty infestations necessitating immediate removal. Yet they still fit squarely into an anthropocentric framework by asserting that the value of these animals lies in their ability to teach us lessons about ourselves. What animals, after all, strive to serve as a model, symbol, or representation for a species that has long subordinated them? An animal’s beingness simply as an animal is quite enough to merit respect and significance.
Fortunately, among the rather objectifying notions in Trash Animals are sprinkled insights that succeed in challenging mainstream anthropocentrism by valuing the anthology’s animal subjects on their own terms. After facing a cockroach infestation in her home, contributor Carolyn Kraus, for example, gains respect for the nearly indestructible species based upon its history and character: “He skitters through the maze of life with no hard feelings […] and wreaks devastation without malice. It’s only fair to note, as well, that we invaded his pantry long before he invaded ours. […] The cockroach existed for 300 million years before the flicker of human history, and he’s likely, with some justice, to inherit the Earth.” Views such as this, which see animals as beings rather than as symbols or commodities, inspire a more symbiotic relationship between humans, the planet, and its inhabitants – one that does not demand putting a value, in human terms, on non-humans and thereby avoids exploitation of them.
Although animal rights activists will most likely find Trash Animals’ subtle anthropocentrism problematic, even while recognizing that it is well intentioned, the non-vegan crowd at which the anthology is marketed will discover a helpful introductory text with which to begin to reimagine other-than-human animals. More self-questioning readers may even find themselves considering veganism after Trash Animals’ final chapter by Kathleen Dean Moore, which astutely notes that “from a mere description – this is the way the world is – you can’t infer a prescription – this is the way the world ought to be.” For me, this observation clearly means that just because we’ve always eaten animals and continue to do so today doesn’t mean we have to or should. Overall, while not without its limitations, Trash Animals signals a shift in mainstream culture – or at least in academic discourse, seeing as it is a university-published text – toward a more conscious consideration of the non-human world. I’d definitely give this one to my college’s squirrel-management team.
A sophomore geography major at Vassar College, Alessandra Seiter is committed to exploring the intersectionalities between veganism and other social justice movements. She serves as co-president of the Vassar Animal Rights Coalition (VARC) and blogs at Farmers Market Vegan. When not writing, blogging, or organizing campus events, Alessandra enjoys cooking, baking, practicing yoga, and biking. Follow Alessandra on Twitter at @FarmerMarketVeg or on Facebook.