The Blue Ridge Naturalist: Another Form of Bigotry— Human Prejudice Against Wildlife

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When you put out unsecured trash cans, you are responsible for enticing wildlife to create messes. Even worse, you endanger it, because animals sometimes swallow food-scented plastic, which clogs their intestines. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.

Bigotry does not apply just to people’s attitudes towards other people. Defined by Merriam-Webster as “obstinate or intolerant devotion to one’s own opinions and prejudices,” it certainly has a valid connection to the way folks tend to view certain kinds of wildlife.

Although society may still have a long way to go as regards addressing the many forms of prejudice exhibited over the eons by humans towards one another, it can still be said that we’ve come a long way from days of yore. Not so for our attitudes towards wildlife.

The generally accepted negative attitudes towards such animals as rats, bats, coyotes, and raccoons is exemplified by the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries. No wildlife agency should ever refer to the critters under its watch as “nuisance” animals. Such language further solidifies the bad feelings citizens already hold towards them.

Of course, DGIF is not the only party guilty of implanting unfavorable attitudes about wildlife. We ended 2018 and began 2019 with a local publication writing about rats on the Downtown [Charlottesville] Mall.

The writer made sure to point out that “the term for a group of rats is ‘mischief’,” which was news to me. In all my years of reading and talking with folks, I have never heard anyone use this term, which the writer undoubtedly employed to remind readers that she was speaking of animals likely to cause us trouble. Is this true? Not necessarily.

In real life, wildlife is not much different from the cats and dogs that people most often choose to make their pets. I know, because I had a pet rat when I was young, and he was quite companionable. He was a pretty, black-and-white lab rat that my father found for sale at a pet shop. I already owned white mice (also of the kind used for lab work, I am sad to say), so I guess my father figured I would enjoy a new addition to my menagerie—and I did!

My rat was named Melvin, the name of a friend of my oldest brother, but I don’t really recall now where his moniker came from. What I do remember explicitly is Melvin walking up my arms and onto my shoulders, and never once biting me while being handled.

He was not at all fearsome, and here was the value in my having been given mice and a rat when I was a child: I learned that there was no reason to fear rodents, despite the cartoons that so often depicted people (especially women) up on chairs screaming as a harmless little mouse ran around on the floor. Can you see the silliness of fearing mice to that extent?

But what about rats that are deeply despised in our society? The truth is that they get a bad rap from unusual events that garner biased publicity, and because they can carry diseases to people who attract them with their garbage. 

In the previously mentioned article about Charlottesville Downtown Mall rats, the reporter pointed out that, in a “very unscientific survey” [her words, not mine], “[c]ommonly mentioned problem areas include restaurant patios, tree grates, and garbage pick-up sites.” She didn’t point out that the reason there are rats in these areas is because people view the outside world as a garbage dump.

Sure, it’s an inevitability that folks are going to drop food on the ground near their table when eating outside; accidents happen. But if the person running the restaurant made sure the patio was cleaned at the end of the business day, he or she wouldn’t have rats performing nightly janitorial services. If mall patrons didn’t treat mall grates as unofficial garbage bins, rodents would not be attracted to them either.

As for the official garbage pick-up sites, why not work on reducing the amount of food waste in the first place? It’s a well-known fact that this country throws away an enormous amount of food, much of it from restaurants serving way too much for most people to eat at one sitting. Restaurants don’t need to dispose of more than 50 tons of organic waste every year.(www.turningclockback.com/restaurant-food-waste-facts)

They could offer patrons a choice of meal sizes so each person could order only the amount he knows he’d be able to consume. And when someone asks for mayonnaise, salad dressing, or butter on the side, why does he tend to receive enough for several sandwiches or salads or slices of bread?

The reason it’s so difficult to get folks to implement commonsense suggestions lies in inherent human laziness. It’s a chore to clean inside restaurant premises as required by law; who wants to make the effort to clean the patio outside? When walking along the mall, who wants to bother to carry unwanted food to an official disposal site when you can just throw it into a nearby grate?

When people don’t take responsibility for their actions, our wildlife suffers horribly. The writer of the article on rats suggested a New Year’s Resolution for readers: “Get the city’s rat stats in line with actual rat sightings…when it comes to rats—on the Mall or anywhere else—if you see something, say something.”

I doubt she realizes that she’s advocating for more poisonous bait traps that cause intense agony to animals that don’t deserve to die that way simply because they were doing their job. Yes, rats (and all organisms) have important jobs to do. One of the environmental services provided by these rodents is recycling organic matter back into the soil, ultimately for the benefit of growing plants. If you don’t want rats (and other creatures, such as flies and cockroaches) to perform this task, then people need to do it.

Societal rules must begin to include the demand for composting bins at restaurants and any establishment that sells food. And, of course, individuals need to clean up their act. If you don’t leave waste food lying around, you won’t attract rats and the other organisms that exist to recycle it. It really is quite that simple.

Wildlife shouldn’t be made to suffer inhumane deaths because people don’t live in agreement with nature. It’s time for folks to recognize human prejudice against wildlife for what it is: the last bit of bigotry that has yet to be addressed in society.

Stop falling into the trap of viewing certain animals as “vermin” to be exterminated by government officials or pest-control companies. Look at our world objectively and see wildlife for what it truly is: the cogs in the machine of life that supports mankind. 

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