• Rae Gellel

Why I Choose to Rescue 'Vermin'

Over the summer, my small wildlife rescue group, the Greenwich Wildlife Network, has grown considerably.

The organisation’s activities are largely coordinated through Facebook, via a community group that has almost doubled in membership during the warmer months. This small surge in attention, inevitably, has also equated to a small surge in criticism, usually from members of the public who take issue with the group’s decision to rescue so-called ‘pest’ species, like mice and pigeons.

It’s a fairly common view, shared even by some wildlife rescue centres, that these animals are not worth saving, or that the only ‘help’ extended to them should be euthanasia.

I don’t share this mindset, in fact, I’m quite passionately opposed to it. However, I’m also aware that my tendency to argue points at length is not necessarily well-placed on a group that is otherwise dedicated to swift and positive action.

Responding to criticism, rather than instantly shutting it down with polite and prompt professionalism, tends to stoke tiny simmering embers into huge engulfing fireballs. The kind that are potentially alienating to supporters and volunteers.

Rescue work is about just that; work. Not talk. Volunteering should be a respite from the vast, global screaming match that social media has become, the dizzying cacophony of opinions.

So, instead of cluttering a productive forum with my endless, tedious thoughts, I’ve decided to unburden myself on this blog instead. In my public capacity as the coordinator of an organisation, I will be the picture of the poised, unemotional professional. But here, on my own dingy little corner of the internet, I maintain the right to be as sanctimonious and argumentative as my petty little heart desires.

So, why do I rescue ‘vermin’?

First of all, there is the question of what constitutes ‘vermin’ in the first place.

It may be news to many that in the UK vermin is a subjective term, not a legal one. Although wildlife legislation does vary widely across species, with laws pertaining to the movement or release of non-native animals in particular, there is no ‘list’ that conclusively identifies certain animals, legally, as vermin.

Despite this, it is a persistent myth that animals such as pigeons carry a pest status, one that prohibits their rescue or treatment. For example, on almost a weekly basis I am forced to explain to someone that there is no legal obligation for either the general public, vets, or rescue organisations to euthanise injured or unwell pigeons. In reality, like all wild birds, both feral and wood pigeons are protected under the Wildlife & Countryside Act, and it is an offence to deliberately harm them or their nests, unless you are a licensed contractor. Even then, certain conditions must be met, though so-called 'pest' controllers don't necessarily adhere religiously to these.

A fireman once confidently informed me that if he helped me to rescue a pigeon trapped in an abandoned building, he would be required to wring its neck ‘by law’ - something that so horrified a Met Wildlife Crime Officer, she offered to call the fire station and advise the gentleman that he was in danger of committing wildlife crime.

The species with a legal status perhaps closest to what people like to call vermin are non-native visitors to the UK, like grey squirrels, canada geese, muntjac deer or mink. Although the precise legislation varies depending on the species, it is often illegal to re-release these animals back into the wild if they become orphaned, trapped or injured. As a result, rescue centres or vets are left with no option either to euthanise, or in the case of some species like grey squirrels, pursue ‘licenses to keep’ that mean housing an endless amount of wild animals in captivity, indefinitely, which is an entirely impractical concept. As is the case with the term ‘vermin’, the word ‘invasive’ now carries so many negative connotations that it's almost impossible for any non-native animal to receive a scientific, truly objective assessment of its impact on biodiversity; a point I argued at length in this piece for Sentient Media.

Aside from whether a species is native or invasive, one of the most prevalent factors in determining whether or not an animal is considered vermin is the region that you live in. More rural areas tend to have a far longer list of animals deemed ‘pests’, as animals more regularly come into conflict with agricultural practices - such as raptors predating game birds destined to be shot for sport, or foxes killing commercially farmed hens.

Conservation and ethics seldom compete with profit, and animals that infringe on economic interests are usually vilified worst of all. The destruction of Flying Fox Bat populations in Mauritius is a good example of this; despite being an endangered species, they are currently being killed en-masse because of the damage they cause to fruit plantations.

In other instances, the threat that animals pose to commercial enterprises might be overblown or exaggerated to justify hunting practices that are otherwise becoming increasingly unpopular. The badger cull in the UK is a good example of this; it has been framed as a way to reduce TB in farmed cattle, despite overwhelming scientific evidence suggesting that it is ineffective.

In urban areas, public scorn is reserved for the animals forced to adapt to our towns and cities, like foxes and pigeons. Hatred of these species is generally justified more on public health claims, the veracity of which are rarely objective. ‘Rats with wings’ is a common refrain in regard to pigeons, one that is grounded on such shaky information that it warrants a separate blog post all of its own. There is only one recorded instance of a human directly contracting disease from a pigeon in the past fifty years - the infection risk they pose is similar to that of all wild birds.

If UK rescue centres were to exclude from their work all of the animals called vermin or pests at one time or another, it would mean disregarding pigeons, foxes, badgers, crows, magpies, some species of duck and geese, mice, rats, voles, grey squirrels, starlings, pine martens, mink, birds of prey, various species of deer, wild rabbits, and so on. Effectively, we’d leave everything to die except for (some) songbirds and swans.

The subjectivity of the term is persistent across the world, with animals that are treasured in some cultures being reviled in others. In some rural townships in Africa, Elephants are hounded out of villages or even killed, considered a pest for their habit of trampling crops. The Egyptian government is among many regimes across the world who regularly cull stray dogs and cats by shooting or poisoning, due to claims that they spread rabies. In Australia, kangaroos compete with livestock for resources, and so are considered a pest - over 30 million have been culled in the past decade, the largest mass killing of a land-based animal on record.

Essentially, the term vermin can be applied to any animal that inconveniences a person, usually through its attempts to adapt to a human-dominated world. This can be an economic inconvenience, as mentioned above, or it can be a personal inconvenience, bordering on the downright petty.

Example; a fox has ripped open my rubbish bags, and has strewn litter all over my front garden, therefore, the entire species should be culled. Or; a pigeon keeps shitting on my car, therefore, all pigeons should all be shot.

It may sound like I am being hyperbolic, but I have had these conversations. Everyone who works in the field of wildlife rescue has had these conversations, not once, but on a regular basis. This perspective amounts to a staggering arrogance, the premise that the right of an animal to exist pales in comparison to the right of a human not to be mildly inconvenienced, on occasion.

That the human race has decimated the natural world does not factor into this kind of thinking. Our existence has not been merely inconvenient to plant and animal life, but catastrophic; with glaciers melting, sea levels rising, forest fires ripping across the world, and a current unprecedented rate of extinction of between 100 and 100,000 species per year. Is it any wonder that wildlife is so regularly accused of infringing on agricultural practices, when a whopping 50% of the world’s habitable landmass has been claimed for human agriculture? That’s half of the world’s land potentially off-limits to animal life.

Image courtesy of RSPCA Knowledge Base

Animals share space with us not just because they’re incapable of recognising our self-proclaimed ‘ownership’ of land, but also simply because they have no space left to call their own.

Perhaps it’s about time that we learned to share, and also accepted the following as an irrefutable truth; nature is inconvenient. Just like when you’ve planned a picnic in the park only to find it’s raining, we need to collectively accept that a little bit of inconvenience may be necessary to maintain the natural order of things. That the world was not built to cater solely for the human race, and that our attempts to exploit, eradicate, and manipulate nature to benefit ourselves does not necessarily benefit our species in the long run. It’s an attitude that is leading to scarcity of resources, the mass die-offs of pollinators like bees, climate change and all of its terrible consequences, and guess what else, folks - pandemics.

Essentially, the terms ‘pest’ and ‘vermin’ are little more than a free pass to rid ourselves of animals that irritate us with a clear conscience. It’s a way of marking an animal as different, putting it in a category of species that are less deserving of respect and empathy. This gives people who might otherwise consider themselves compassionate an excuse to be unusually callous. If you have mice in your house, then empathy becomes a barrier to you ridding yourself of the problem with the minimum effort or expense required. However, if that animal is different, lesser, disgusting, or dirty in some way - vermin - then you are excused from having to empathise with it. Thus, a hamster is a pet deserving of care, but a mouse is vile and dangerous and can be killed in whatever way is fast, easy, and cheap.

Empathy is hard work, trust me, I know.

We do a similar thing when we label certain animals as food. In the Western world, we would never dream of treating dogs and cats the way we treat chickens and pigs, but the distinction of ‘livestock’ vs ‘pet’ creates sufficient cognitive dissonance that we can enjoy a steak dinner free of guilt.

In reality, of course, animals are just animals, and either all of their lives matter, or none of them matter. It is worth noting that the number of animals saved by wildlife rescue organisations tends to be negligible in terms of their overall populations. The animals most often admitted to rescues in the UK, aside from hedgehogs, are also often non-endangered species. Therefore, it stands to reason that rescue activities are not motivated predominantly by conservation, but by morality. By a desire to prevent suffering to vulnerable creatures.

Therefore, it should be no surprise to anyone that rescue organisations such as my own chose to rescue 'pests'. Their capacity to suffer does not change because you have allocated them a certain label. It does not change because they are an annoyance or an inconvenience, often through no fault of their own, often through their attempts to live as nature intended, in a world that we make more unnatural by the day.