Bethany Brookshire / HarperCollins Publishers / 348 pages 

Bethany Brookshire begins her engrossing book, Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains, with an eastern gray squirrel named “[expletive] Kevin” who is decimating her tomato plant.

It is an illuminating anecdote, since Brookshire—an award-winning science writer and host of the podcast Science for the People—fully acknowledges that whether an animal is considered cherished wildlife, pet, or pest is all about perspective (i.e., how much of an inconvenient irritant they are). Squirrels scampering in the forest are a delight, while the squirrel christened Kevin, who is using her garden patch as a smorgasbord, must be eradicated.

Brookshire incorporates an array of perspectives into her deeply researched work that explores the nature and treatment of pests, including historical, religious, Indigenous, ecological, and ethical viewpoints. She focuses on vertebrates, she says, because humans have fewer moral qualms about destroying insects.

In Western culture, the concept of a pest is born from a misguided notion that nature exists to serve people; animals, therefore, must know their place. “Pests,” such as coyotes who attack livestock, “challenge our sense of control, revealing that human power over the landscape is an illusion,” according to Brookshire. 

Fear of disease motivates humans to label rats and pigeons (denigrated as “rats with wings”) as pests. Many humans feel this absolves them of any guilt associated with killing these animals in the most inhumane ways. We seem to forget that humans are the ones who generate the food waste that urban rats and pigeons dine on, or that pigeons were once revered for carrying important messages during wartime that saved lives. 

Brookshire reminds us that much-maligned pests, in fact, are resourceful animals who have demonstrated evolutionary success amid habitat destruction and climate change. And as much as their enterprising ways turn them into pests from our perspective, we cannot exterminate our way out of the predicament. As long as humans continue to encroach on and pollute wild spaces—while presenting alternative food sources and living spaces that adaptable species will learn to exploit—we contribute to pest proliferation. 

Perhaps we are the worst pests of all.