Rat Control and Cultural Meaning

The Canadian province of Alberta’s otherwise invisible border with Saskatchewan, where Pest Control Officers work to prevent rats from infiltrating the province from outside.

The Canadian province of Alberta’s otherwise invisible border with Saskatchewan, where Pest Control Officers work to prevent rats from infiltrating the province from outside.

My dissertation project is a multi-sited analysis of various attempts to eradicate or control rat populations. I include in my study a typology of rural, urban, and island settings in which rats are defined, in distinct ways, as what Mary Douglas influentially termed “matter out of place.” In rural areas, rats are seen as threats to agricultural production, as economic liabilities. In cities, they are metonyms for poverty, dirtiness and disease. Finally, on islands, rats offend environmentalist sensibilities and imaginations of “nature” by posing a threat to endemic species and their habitats. I ask the question, “what social, cultural, and historical forces have led to the targeting of rats with systematic lethal force in these places?” More specifically, I explore how rat control functions as a symbolic cultural narrative connected to other social processes where it occurs, and how rats themselves are imbued with meaning that transcends their lives and physical bodies.

This project is primarily an ethnographic study based on interviews and participant observation in three sites: Alberta, Canada, which has claimed a “rat free” status for several decades; Detroit, Michigan, where rat control efforts struggle against the forces of abandonment and depopulation; and the Galapagos Islands, where environmental organizations attempt to eradicate rats from islands to protect native species. In addition to ethnographic data collected with rat control officials in each of these places, my study also employs archival historical data and survey data used in supplemental quantitative statistical analyses.

An article based on my fieldwork in Alberta for this project has received two awards: the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences’s Best Student Paper Award and the Jane Goodall Award for Graduate Student Research, awarded by the American Sociological Association’s Section on Animals and Society.


Wildfire and Direct Aid to Animals

A man scoops up a wild rabbit alongside Highway 101 in Southern California, in an effort to save it from the Thomas Fire burning in the background.

A man scoops up a wild rabbit alongside Highway 101 in Southern California, in an effort to save it from the Thomas Fire burning in the background.

In December 2017, a wildfire that became known as the “Thomas Fire” erupted in southern California, eventually becoming the state’s largest fire in recorded history (it has since been surpassed by the Mendocino Complex Fire of 2018). During this fire, two viral cultural phenomena emerged, both related to efforts to directly aid wild animals during the fire. One was a video that depicted a man on the side of the highway scooping up a wild rabbit running perilously close to the flames, the other was a widely shared meme instructing residents living near the fire to leave out buckets of water to animals who may venture into urban areas as the flee the fire. Both of these generated popular celebration on the one hand, and expert responses arguing against these types of interventions on the other.

Together with a colleague of mine, Zachary King, I conducted a qualitative content analysis of discourse around these two cases in news and social media. We examine the tension around differing conceptions of human responsibility to animals, and different cultural imaginations of disaster. Specifically, in the age of human-generated ecological crises many have termed the “anthropocene,” how have the relationships between humans and wild animals shifted, both materially and in popular cultural discourse? A manuscript based on this research is currently under review for publication.