Hyperrhiz 12: Reviews/interview

Kelsi Nagy and Phillip David Johnson II (Eds.), Trash Animals

Tissa J. Thomas

Kelsi Nagy and Phillip David Johnson II (Editors). Trash Animals: How We Live with Nature's Filthy, Feral, Invasive, and Unwanted Species. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. Print.

In the collection of essays Trash Animals, Kelsi Nagy and Philip Johnson describe animals' sociocultural existence and habitat as endangered, oppressed, and denigrated. This book covers a five-part discussion on the symbolism of social and psychological representation of animals by human desires to dominate them and the environment. According to the authors, animals are classified in a hierarchical arrangement from "exotic" to domesticate to invasive to "trashy." Hummingbirds, for instance, are considered exotic and the bald eagle symbolizes nationalism, while pigeons and Canadian geese signify a "trash" or invasive species. The saying that "one man's trash is another man's treasure" is a literal and allegorical representation of how humans project their cultural prejudices, idiosyncrasies, and subjective ideologies onto animals by denigrating them for various arbitrary reasons. Cultural prejudice refers to a socially shared propaganda that is embedded in a culture and its institutions such as the media. Our discursive practices of valuing one species over another limit us to view animals as human-like or a nuance; humans do not identity with behavior as animalistic in nature. If we consider our traits to be loyal and tough, we see similar characteristics to a particular animal such as a canine. Coming off as graceful while at the same time being a bit of a loner makes one like a feline. For people who are sexy, cunning, and obscenely confident this representation lends to the caricature of a fox. While the stereotypes themselves vary from culture to culture, animals are one of the most popular forms of symbolism in fiction. Animals are stigmatized by their ability to adapt to—and become domesticated in—human society. What do animals have in common with humans? They have everything in common with the social inequalities and cultural metaphors of hegemony and hierarchy that create exploitation, discrimination, and control among living beings.

Part 1, "The Symbolic Trash Animals," explores animals' narratives based on our need to perceive animals as dangerous; animals' precarious existence derives from their relationship with our culture and psyche. The stereotyping of animals is prominent within nearly every society. However, unlike issues of gender or racial inequality, animal studies reveal more invisible forms of oppression quietly and consistently operating in different ethical and discriminatory alignments. Gavan P. L. Watson views the ring-billed gull as not only invasive and trashy but also the ubiquitous quintessential urban habitant of manmade conservation and recreation spaces in Toronto, Canada. He views colonial ring-billed gull as adaptive and says "overgeneralize referents emerge in dominate discourse that reinforces anthropocentric ideologies" about how we perceive ring billed-gulls' behaviors as meek and scavengerly. In addition, they suffer as "emblems of fashion" because of their "bright white feathers and wings fastened to hats"; global trade economies encourage the death of thousands of birds for their feathers to facilitate human desire for pop culture links to vogue and fashion industries. In turn, ethics allow us to understand that difference in otherness does not equate to lesser value or negative stereotypes. For example, Charles Bergman compares a wolf in the wild to domesticated dogs wearing collars to show humans have objective knowledge and self-interest in both species. We perceive wolves as dangerous and disobedient wild beasts and dogs as domesticated and loyal. Domestic animals we control and predatory animals we fear because they can hurt us. What humans need to realize, regardless of our fears, is that animals are not dependent on us to thrive or survive; in fact, they don't need us at all, in spite of our desire to control them. 

Part II, "The Native Trash Animal," considers the biological and historical context in which we hold preconceived notions about animals' biological behaviors in comparison to our own. Our rationale for imposing prejudices against wildlife in the reductionism of cultural symbolism and the understanding of the behavioral commonalities of all life forms promotes Darwinian evolutionary biology. Animals are like us: They exploit habitats (usually manmade habitats), search and scavenge for plenty of food, and breed wherever they live. Behavior forms the foundation of human society and culture, and our interpretation of animal behaviors interpellates our prejudices framed on the basis of Skinner's (1957) perspectives that living beings control their desires and specification for how they interact to determine a particular verbal response. According to Lisa Couturier, by "watching the animal's eye, we see a coyote move across a field," and it's cognitive, athletic decision making and instinctual behavior heighten in the pursuit of prey. Animals' verbal behaviors represent their predatory behavior to survive and thrive in the wild. But these "trash" animals thumb their noses at us. Animals challenge our sense of controlling the world. 

Part III, "The Invasive Trash Animal," discusses how colonial desires to reshape culture result in biological consequences for animals. For example, Charles Mitchell explores the invasive starling introduced to North America in 1890 by German immigrant and member of the American Acclimatization Society Eugene Schieffelin. Schieffelin, being a Shakespeare enthusiast, released over sixty European starlings in Central Park to save Shakespeare's rumored endangered status in pop culture. The birds soon after were featured prominently in Shakespeare's plays and poetry. The demystification of Shakespearean narrative by actors and their personalization of performances led theatergoers to feel they were being hoodwinked; this caused fewer people to be interested in Shakespeare. After the Civil War, a cultural shift occurred where Shakespeare was no longer available to the masses. The playwright's canon, now considered high culture, was both a signifier of upper-class status and a means of civilizing the barbaric masses. Schieffelin hoped to naturalize and fashion starlings in the Shakespearean context. Today in North America, starlings and pigeons are not only pests and a nuisance in urban areas because they have thrived and survived in the new world that we constructed, but natural selection allows starlings to rapidly grow at the expense of other avian species because they out-compete all the native nesters. Thus, we are at fault for the colonization of starlings and the endangerment of native avian. Perhaps it is humans who have taken over as the invasive species by controlling or trying to take control of everything with which they come into contact—except those scary predators! 

Part IV, "The Urban Trash Animal," challenges humans to see beyond the cultural constrictions or complex world in which we find ourselves. We essentialize species we assume are inherently different from us. We believe stereotyping, classifying, or categorizing the "natural" characteristics of species can explain these differences. We have this need to debunk species' characteristics as "fixed" in little cubby holes, but they evolve and change genetically in response to migration to new spaces and interaction with other species. We cannot deal with these phenomena; we want animals fixed into little categories and spaces so we can sort and count and evaluate. Therefore, what goes into the classification of "trash" depends simply on who is calling the shots and whose space is being labeled. Essentializing species results in thinking, speaking, and acting in ways that promote our stereotypical and inaccurate interpretations of their environment. James E. Bishop encourages us to be aware that exotic birds, like magpies, can also be pestilent to fruit farmers, and even though parks are manmade urban habitants for most animals, perhaps they still serve a purpose as a resemblance of the wildness.

In the final section, "Moving beyond Trash," the authors encourage humans to strive to understand their innate conflict with animals in order for us to coexist. According to Kyhl Lyndgaard, the bullhead fish is considered an unappetizing, ugly bottom-feeder with impressive survival abilities to adapt in human-polluted or radiation-contaminated waters. Fish, too, are taboo animals. The fish is symbolic of a sacred creature, yet we hold an ambivalent attitude toward fish because of their distant habitat of the sea. We view the sea is an ugly place of death and chaos, and our value for the bullhead fish also represents our understanding of aesthetics. To further the argument that animals and humans need each other, Jeffrey A. Lockwood's spirited discussion engages us to find value in the distinctive lubber grasshopper. This grasshopper is known not only for its anatomical and physiological purpose in biology labs but also for its repugnant vomiting and feces, as well as being a legendary enemy of crops under harsh climates. These animals add to the biodiversity of our ecosystem because they exhibit extreme resilience and adaptability in the environment that ultimately ensures species' survival. In some way we interpret them in the same way they would judge us, assuming they could judge: as good for nothing, making a mess and polluting the earth. So while bullhead fish, lubber grasshoppers, feral cats, rats, and mice aren't threatening in the way predator species are, they are threatening to our sense of our godliness or superiority and the gloriousness of everything humans do because we are "better" than everything else.

In short, life is valuable, whether human or animal, and cultural prejudices shape our perception of the world at the disadvantage of depicting species as "worthless, threatening, dangerous, destructive, and ugly." Being human hardly grants us morality or ethical authority to marginalize other species as having little or no value or as being subordinates for our mere entertainment. Consider the paradigm shift of the good life: Is it being fat and lazy with servants doing everything while one sits, eats, and dies young? At one time it was, but no longer. Using as many resources as possible was once the pinnacle of having it all, the "American Dream." Now the fad is doing more with less; people want low-energy, high-tech fixtures, solar panels, etc., leading to changes in our value system and how we make meaning of animals and the ecosystem.