On Packrat Philosophy, Cantankerous Grasshoppers, and Living with Nature’s Unwanted Species

Why are some species admired or beloved while others are despised? An eagle or hawk circling overhead inspires excited sounds and the whipping-out of binoculars, while gulls and rats are ignored or openly reviled.

From pigeons to prairie dogs, Trash Animals: How We Live with Nature’s Filthy, Feral, Invasive, and Unwanted Species, out now from University of Minnesota Press, offers reflections on reviled animals and their place in contemporary life. Each essay in the collection focuses on a so-called “trash species”—coyotes, carp, cockroaches, magpies, and lubber grasshoppers, among others—examining the biology and behavior of each in contrast to cultural assumptions about them.

The collection includes work from fifteen different contributors, including Orion friends and contributors Kathleen Dean Moore, Lisa Couturier, Jeffrey Lockwood, Michael P. Branch, and Andrew Blechman, the magazine’s managing editor.

Here’s Kathleen Dean Moore on packrat philosophy, from her essay “The Parables of the Rats and Mice”:

In a mountain cabin in Colorado many years ago, when Frank and I were very young, we were annoyed each night be a packrat. It was a lovely brown rat with a softly furred tail, but it pooped on the dishtowels and skittered and crashed all night long, chewing up tin foil and Styrofoam cups. Plus, it was a prime suspect in the disappearance of a bike-lock key. Not really capital offenses, as I think about it now, but we decided to put out poison. In those days, rat poison was a waxy substance in bottle caps. Fools, we put out two. In the morning, one of the bottle caps was gone, and in its place, the rat had left a quarter.

Western philosophy has made a whole moral theory out of trade-offs like this. “An act is right if it creates the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” we assure each other: the famous Utilitarian Principle. So anything can be traded, so long as you’re a sharper trader, always getting a balance of happiness in the long run. Dam the Columbia River, for example. Ruin ancient runs of lamprey and sockeye salmon, bury the places where native people have gathered for centuries to fish and to pray, as long as you can show on a graph how the benefits soar beyond the measured costs, irrigating orchards and sending cheap electricity to California. We do the calculation—this much pleasure, that much pain—and if the balance of happiness is in the black, we assure ourselves that we are acting morally.

Well, maybe we are and maybe we aren’t. It’s complicated.

And here’s Jeffrey Lockwood on the lubber grasshopper, from his essay “A Six-Legged Guru: Fear and Loathing in Nature”:

The lubber may look dim-witted and benign, but appearances can be deceiving. Lurking beneath the bulging exoskeleton is a cantankerous and wily creature. One must be careful when accosting these creatures because their hind legs sport rows of spines that they rake across the flesh of a would-be captor. This might partially explain their minor-at-best place in the vertebrate cuisine of the prairie. However, a clever predator (or entomologist) can neutralize this defensive maneuver by grabbing them by their hind legs. But wait—as they say in the cable infomercials—there’s more. At this juncture of the capture, the lubbers resort to their most noteworthy tactic. They become utterly repulsive.

Their first and most revolting strategy in this regard is to regurgitate copiously. Many species exhibit this defensive behavior, and as kids we referred to grasshoppers “spitting tobacco juice.” Indeed, the cola-colored fluid resembles the expectorant of tobacco chewers in its capacity to stain whatever it hits. Of course, a grasshopper isn’t spitting masticated wads of chewed tobacco. Rather, it is heaving up masticated and liquefied sunflower leaves—the contents of its foregut, which is the anatomical equivalent of our stomach. The prairie lubber manages to produce this material in truly impressive quantities, smearing itself and its handler with the dark brown fluid. For this grasshopper, however, the effort to repulse its assailant is not complete…

Trash Animals is edited by Kelsi Nagy and Phillip David Johnson, and includes a foreword by Randy Malamud.


  1. I am ALWAYS talking about this, specifically re: grackles here in Austin. I will definitely be reading this book.

  2. Eric, I love grackles. I grew up south of Houston and now live in Tucson. Grackles are not common here but a few visit my backyard and I love hearing their vocalizations and watching them strut around, regal compared to the common birds here. I haven’t read this book yet but will soon, and will be interested to see if my theory about the main characteristic that qualifies a apecies as a “trash animal” is in the book. I think it is simply abundance. Whatever is abundant in any given area (even if it’s rare and valued in another), qualifies to be eradicated because of its inherent presence, as if it dares to co-exist in our fabricated realm with us. Even more so if it dares to display any evidence of the same functions as humans (noise, waste, building shelter, courtship, protecting young ones). In a way, I think we project our own self-hatred and disgust onto animals much in the same way we project other emotions, rather than simply appreciating them for their own.

  3. Hey, another grackle fan! So we’re the two…

    You might like this blog I wrote about our fine feathered friends: http://avastdesert.wordpress.com/2013/04/04/in-the-grackles-defense/

    My view of “trash” animals is that they have managed to adapt to human environments, which are usually dirty and contaminated. But humans, as arrogant as we are, attribute our filth on to the other animals who had nothing to do with it. “Roaches are disgusting!” we’ll say — yes, but mostly because they live in human filth, not their own. $.02

  4. Nice article and great points. I remember in Texas that grackles congregate in a tree – hundreds of them – and people call the USFWS to ask them to get rid of them. They are quite noisy (like cicadas), but I really miss hearing them. when I lived in Colorado I loved the magpies galloping across my roof, and again, the local folks did whatever they could to drive them away. I think a lot of it is due to people not travelling, having no exposure to other cultures, languages, values – it’s hard to appreciate what we’ve got especially when we have a lot of it, without a chance to see it from another viewpoint. Also, people generally think that if there is a lot of something, then it must be able to adapt and survive anywhere, and so they feel justified driving it out of the current area where it thrives, not realizing that it thrives exactly there, because it is suited for that exact environment, and that it usually can’t just migrate over to the next county or state. Very similar to the same way we treat indigenous people, or any social subgroup that is inconvenient to our objectives.

  5. Although by the article that you referenced, the grackles seem to be the exception and are adapting to other areas quite well!

  6. Good points. When I visit family in Pennsylvania it seems strange not to see or hear grackles for a whole week – and it definitely wouldn’t be Austin without them.

  7. The Trash Animals is an excellent book. This book describes about how we live with nature’s filthy, feral, invasive and unwanted species. Thanks for this nice article and great points.

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