On ‘Vermin’ and Shifting Animal/Human Relationships

Earlier this year, we had rather a lot of trouble with foxes. A pair settled in and had kits, and they roamed the neighbourhood looking for food, and our chickens were the most obvious and readily-available food source. Consequently, we lost several chickens, which was sad because we’re rather attached to them and also because without chickens, we have no fresh eggs. Tragically, the chicks my landlords bought to replace the lost chickens were attacked by a weasel, which managed to get into the very secure enclosure the chicks were living in through a tiny hole in the floor. (Let no one claim that weasels are not, well, weasely.)

The series of incidents (ultimately, we trapped the foxes and relocated them to a more suitable location, away from human settlements), got me thinking, as I often do, about the concept of ‘vermin’ and the relationship between animals and humans. From a young age growing up in rural areas, I’ve known and treated animals like weasels, foxes, deer, and skunks as pests, something to be removed, because they harass or kill livestock, make messes in the garden, and generally interfere with my life. On the flip side, though, my own life obviously affects theirs, and that’s something that’s rarely discussed in conversations about ‘taking care of’ animals in a community.

This is an especially pressing issue now that it’s become trendy not just to live in the suburbs and have a big lawn, but to chase after the idealised rural life. More and more people from the city are moving up to rural communities, building their ‘dream homes,’ chopping up what was once farmland, taking down forest, and, of course, complaining about how built up it’s getting. (Oh, bitter laughter, my friends, bitter, bitter laughter.) Suburban sprawl is creeping deeper and deeper into areas that were once scarcely-populated, and animals are feeling that crunch particularly hard.

When habitat is destroyed, animals have to go somewhere — it’s sort of the nature of the situation. If you have nowhere to live, you move. Lacking access to Craigslist, animals are pushed into new spaces, and those spaces don’t always mesh well with how humans think land should and can be used. Thus, more and more suburban communities are seeing deer, foxes, bears, and other visitors. Those animals have nowhere else to go. They’ve been hemmed in by human habitation, and they’ve also learned that where humans live, so does food.

There are gardens rich with produce and ornamental plants for deer and other herbivores, like rabbits. There are livestock, hobby and otherwise, for carnivores. There are compost piles and garbage scraps for raccoons and skunks. Everywhere humans are, there’s a bountiful and amazing and delicious supply of food. No small wonder that animals would prefer to stick in human communities even if it’s possible to escape to more congenial locations where they won’t be harassed by humans, because the cost is worth it; why live somewhere else when you can access a hot and cold running buffet at all hours?

And why do so when on top of the food sources, there’s also ample shelter? For every space under a house, for every shed, for every artful and picturesque cutesy little thing people install, there’s another place for animals to den and create a shelter for themselves and their young. For every park and greenway created is more habitat that’s also conveniently located next to food sources — and let me hasten to add that I do not advocate for the elimination of parks and greenways, for a wide variety of reasons.

There’s a fundamental disconnect between the way humans use land, the way animals use land, and the way the two connect. Humans want that ‘rural experience’ and are willing to pay a lot for it — which is why rural communities are struggling with rising real estate prices, a skyrocketing cost of living, and other factors that are pushing people out in favour of wealthy people who think they can muscle rural communities around. Meanwhile, they don’t like the costs of that experience — not the financial costs, but the actual, physical, tangible ones. They want cute backyard chickens, but not foxes (unless, of course, they’re magical non-chicken-eating foxes who will look pretty in their yards and then bound away to some other mystical food source). They want pretty gardens they can Instagram, but not deer and moles. They want ornamental plants around their house, but no rabbits to eat them. They want nature without the nature, a sanitised version of the world where everything is clean and tidy and made up nice.

That’s not what you get. You can’t pick and choose. It’s either one or the other — and the lack of acceptance of this is an issue with the growing pressures on animals. You can’t expect to settle in an area where wildlife live without seeing wildlife, and, in many cases, without clashing with them. Wildlife don’t want the same things you do. And they’re not particularly interested in doing what you want them to do. They were here first, and they have more imperative needs than you do.

The refusal to acknowledge this among many people living in urban areas who have expectation of the rural and suburban communities they relocate to is beyond frustrating, as it reinforces a sense of ownership and control that doesn’t really exist, and is much more ephemeral than people seem to realise. We own nothing. We control nothing. We are guests on the land we inhabit — and the animals were there first.

Image: Redhill Wildlife Centre — Mr. Fox Hungry &¬†Cold, Gareth Williams, Flickr