Recently, I’ve found myself in a number of situations where those around me (and in one instance even myself) implicitly referred to other animals as dirty, and thus in need of being separated from us “clean” humans. Though I’ve written before about the animals we typically deem as “pests,” these recent situations have prompted me to re-explore the topic.
In one instance, I overheard a conversation that took place in my communal kitchen between two of my housemates. Housemate A was about to place a spoonful of peanut butter into a small cup when Housemate B shouted at Housemate A to stop, warning Housemate A that the particular cup they were about to use had previously been employed to feed the rescued lab rats who live with another housemate. Housemate A thanked Housemate B, expressing their gladness that they hadn’t had to eat from the same cup from which a rat had eaten (even though the cup had been cleaned and sanitized in the dishwasher after the rat had used it).
Additionally, my housemates and I have been increasingly encountering cockroaches in the kitchen, pantry, and dining areas of our cooperative household. The majority of my housemates have expressed concern over the insects’ presence, citing health risks and food contamination. I myself played into this discourse by not removing a cockroach trap placed in our walk-in pantry by our college’s janitorial staff — an inaction that, upon reflection, was supremely speciesist, and one in which I don’t intend to engage again. It is with a heavy heart that I think of those beings who met an untimely and violent death in part due to my inaction, and I hope that this post can provide some small memorial to them.
In my view, at the heart of these expressions of disgust toward the rats and cockroaches in our home lies the speciesist assumption that we — the human animals for whose use our house is intended — are cleaner (read: superior) than the other animals with whom we live, and thus that we have a right to determine how they use our house, whether that infringes upon their bodily autonomy or not.
And yet, as the editors of the anthology Trash Animals: How We Live with Nature’s Filthy, Feral, Invasive, and Unwanted Species inquire, “Are animals to blame for flourishing in the abundant habitat we create?” (24). Indeed — to use the case of cockroaches as an extended example — cockroaches probably wouldn’t want anything to do with human animals if not for our “crumbs, scraps of food, and spilled food that they find” (Orkin) (they have existed for 300 million years before us, anyway [Kraus 212]). In this way, are not cockroaches merely cleaning up after our messes?
Because we human animals — and especially those who enjoy ample amount of privilege — are notoriously unwilling to engage in self-critical reflection, we refuse to acknowledge the situations we create as having the ideal conditions for the prevalence of cockroaches and other “pests.” Thus, we attack the symptom — cockroaches — of the manifestation of the messiness at once integral to human nature and demonized out of our fears of appearing “imperfect” in any way. With their astute assertion that “[t]rash is a human creation both literally and figuratively” (7), Nagy and Johnson adequately summarize our construction of certain animals as “pests” out of a fear to acknowledge the mess that we necessarily produce simply by virtue of living (especially in our modern world).
All this talk of human production of trash as the reason for the prevalence of cockroaches is not intended to shame the marginalized groups — namely, economically poor Black people in the United States — who encounter cockroaches on the most regular basis. (To give you some context, a 1996 study by Sarpong et al found that “African-American race and low socioeconomic status were both[…] significant risk factors for cockroach allergen sensitization in children with atopic asthma” ). On the contrary, I want to stress the point that we wealthy white people have a fear of being associated with such marginalized groups due to our historical construction of them as dirty, disease-ridden, and morally inferior (constructions used with high frequency to justify slavery)—a construction that in part depends upon our speciesist understanding of “pests,” since such an understanding allows us to point to the concentration of cockroaches in low-income Black homes as evidence of the latter’s physical and spiritual filthiness. To concretize this idea, it might be helpful to remember that “[p]olitical, ethnic, and interest groups have […] demonized outsiders [such as Black, Mexicans, and Jews] by nicknaming them after [cockroaches” (Kraus in Nagy & Johnson 204).
Yet just as humans create just the conditions in which cockroaches and other “pests” can thrive, wealthy white people create the conditions in which economically poor Black people face institutional barriers to securing housing that supports their wellbeing (i.e., by not being infested with cockroaches, who have been consistently linked with carrying asthma-related allergens). For example, the housing that is economically accessible to economically poor Black people due to vast structural inequality is often in disrepair, making it incredibly difficult to maintain a “clean” home (how can your food stay safe to eat if your cabinet doors are falling of their hinges, or if your refrigerator can’t maintain temperature? And how can you avoid mold if your pipes leak?), and thus one less likely to attract cockroaches and other “pests.”
Cockroaches do not inherently cause asthma, but individuals living in areas with a high cockroach presence for a prolonged period of time have a far greater chance of becoming sensitized to cockroach allergens (aka, becoming allergic to cockroaches), and developing asthma in part because of them. So, instead of demonizing the individual non-human animals who seem to me pretty harmless in and of themselves, perhaps we should instead devote our energies toward working in solidarity with marginalized groups to dismantle the structures that reinforce the white supremacy and poverty that forces economically poor Black people into dilapidated housing, prevents them from accessing adequate healthcare, etc. Part of this dismantling, I believe, needs to involve a confrontation of our fear of being associated with beings whom we regard as dirty and inferior — whether that be economically poor people, people of color, or “trash” animals.
In solidarity, Ali.
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