A zoologist explains how he deals with unwelcomed bugs and creepy crawlies from the perspective of an ethical vegan.
Nature has an inbuilt “social distancing” system where animals tend to keep away from each other, just in case. But sometimes, when a human encounters another animal, the experience may not be enjoyable. Either because of a real or an imagined threat, such encounters may end up with violence against the animal.
When these negative experiences happen, if such animals are Arthropods (small and with an external skeleton), we pejoratively label them as “bugs”. And if the unwelcomed meetings occur regularly in our homes or gardens, we can even add the more antagonistic label “pests”.
All these are just unhelpful labels. These animals are only trying to survive like anyone else. They are not malicious, but an important part of natural ecosystems. They happen to be unpopular for a variety of reasons (such as the number of legs they have, or how they defend themselves).
Most “bugs” are not a real threat to humans, especially in northern latitudes. They would not bite you or sting you and they would try to avoid you whenever they can. But sometimes, a few may indeed hurt you (or maybe considered unsanitary).
Ethical vegans should avoid cruelty to all animals, and killing a sentient being for convenience, no matter of what species, is a cruel act. So, how vegans should deal with the bugs most non-vegans kill?
Are bugs sentient?
As a zoologist, I do not doubt that all arthropods (insects, arachnids, myriapods, crustaceans, etc.) are sentient. They have sophisticated senses to perceive their environment, a nervous system (which also includes a brain, also central like ours) that translates sensations into positive, neutral or negative experiences, and they can move reacting accordingly.
For example, a mosquito has a very effective sense of smell to detect mammals, by smelling the carbon dioxide they emit when they breathe and the lactic acid in their sweat. If she is a female, her brain identifies such a smell as a positive experience because it indicates the food she needs to produce her eggs. So, with heroic courage, she decides to fly towards the giant mammal and take a drop of blood while avoiding being crushed. If she wasn’t a sentient being, she couldn’t do any of this.
Consequently, discriminating against insects is speciesist, and not compatible with ethical veganism.
But there are specials circumstances when some discrimination because of self-defence cannot be avoided — for instance, in certain latitudes where there are deadly diseases transmitted to humans through some species of insect (such as malaria and the mosquitoes Anopheles).
Non-lethal methods to deal with bugs
In most situations, the disturbance that some bugs cause to humans is really just an inconvenience. They don’t deserve a death sentence for it. But some of these can be quite irritating and distressing for some people, who naturally want to avoid them. The challenge is how to do it without using lethal methods.
There are vegan-friendly companies that deal with “nuisance” animals in a non-lethal way, like Humane Wildlife Solutions, Scotland’s first 100% humane pest-control company run by the vegan Kevin Newell.
Often, we can deal with the problem ourselves without needing to resort to professionals. The classic catch-and-release with a glass would work in most cases, especially for spiders who have an entirely undeserved “phobia” syndrome associated with them. However, the following are some of my tips on how to deal with special cases, based on how I did it myself.
People often panic unnecessarily when having a close encounter with a wasp or a bee. Attempts to push them away with vigorous gestures, interpreted by the insects as a threat, only escalate the situation.
When seeing a wasp inspecting your picnic, it is best to keep calm and do nothing. She has other things in mind than stinging you. Avoiding fast movements and slowly stepping back normally works.
As part of my PhD studies, I researched social wasps’ behaviour for ten years (sometimes having them flying in my living room), and I was only stung six times — all of them being entirely my fault.
If they built a nest somewhere in your property, better keep the distance and let them be. In Europe, most colonies begin to die out in autumn, so if left alone and undisturbed, the problem will eventually sort itself out. Professionals moving the nest to another location is also an option.
Regarding mosquitoes and midges, the best way to avoid the dilemma of whether to kill them is to prevent them from reaching your skin in the first place. There are different ways to achieve this:
- Closing doors and windows before sunset.
- Using vegan insect repellent vaporizers or lotions (I have used Incognito successfully).
- Using mosquito nets covering beds or sleeping bags.
In western Scotland, I remember observing the locals walking with head nets during the summer evenings to avoid the midges. It works.
As I do not react that much to their stings, if I am in the UK and find a mosquito already biting me, I let it collect my blood and go.
Fast crawling bugs
In the case of cockroaches or ants, not leaving any food or garbage exposed near the home, and keeping the house very clean and dry, often does the job. But what to do if we relaxed our cleaning routines and couldn’t avoid their presence?
In 2004, I moved into a ground floor flat in south London. When summer came, I noticed the appearance of a few small brown cockroaches in the kitchen. Since I also had a healthy population of house spiders, I thought maybe they would take care of them. However, when the number of encounters started to grow on warmer days, I realised I had to do something.
I put all food in closed containers or inside the fridge, I kept my rubbish out, I sealed all holes and fissures I could find and began an evacuation operation. After trying several methods with varying success, in the end, what worked was to flick them with my finger into an empty yoghurt jar and translocate them out of the house within seconds. They didn’t return.
Dealing with ants is easier. Washing down the area with hot water mixed with lemon juice or vinegar removes their scent trail, which they need for orientation.
It is worth taking the time to find ways to coexist with any sentient being who has as much right to exist as we do.