by Urban Squirrels’ Natalia Doran, published in the Animal Watch (Anglican) magazine.
Can language kill animals? Do we consent to this killing simply by using certain words? It is actually quite hard to kill a sentient creature. In order to do it, we usually have to rebrand them: as food, as pests, as vermin, as a danger to the public. The killing can then be called food production, management, control, culling, balancing out, protecting biosecurity or biodiversity. Just as with fellow human beings we have to first change the label of the persons we intend to kill to “enemy”, with non-human animals we also have to first change the label, both to ease our conscience and to hide the killing from others. And, before we know it, the killing gets out of control, and no one knows any longer why it has happened or how to stop it.This is certainly true in the case of animals that are classed as “invasive alien species”. A rather extreme example is the humble grey squirrel, residing in the UK since the 19th century and endlessly entertaining city dwellers in particular with their agility and intelligence. Because of their status as “invasive aliens”, they are mercilessly persecuted; a process that has passed beyond absurd in December 2019, when a law came into effect that punishes with a prison sentence of up to two years any wildlife rescuer who returns back to the wild a grey squirrel whom they took in for rehabilitation. The grey squirrel is accused of causing deforestation (not true, according to Forestry Commission research), of causing the decline of songbirds (not true, according to an extensive government-funded monitoring programme), of killing off red squirrels (who were in severe decline, due to habitat loss, before grey squirrels were introduced). And all because grey squirrels are on the list of “invasive alien species”.So who exactly are these dangerous “aliens”? The species in question, ranging from plants like Japanese knotweed to animals such as signal crayfish, muntjac deer and the afore-mentioned grey squirrels, have the misfortune of not having lived in Great Britain since the formation of the English Channel about 8000 years ago (which would make them native), or since the 12th century (which would make them naturalized). Historically, they could almost be described as victims of fashion. In the 19th century the fashion was to collect animals and plants from all over the British Empire and to try to establish them on different continents. The process was called “acclimatization” and was considered cutting edge science. It was in this atmosphere that grey squirrels, for example, were brought over from America 150 years ago. Unfortunately for the bushy-tailed ones, the pendulum of fashion has swung in the opposite direction, and introduced species are now considered public enemy number one.One could, of course, argue that the unpopularity of these species is not a question of fashion, but of their ecological impact, which is a scientific fact. But science formulates its agenda, and reports its conclusions, in words, in concepts, and it is important that these concepts are neutral and impartial, as well as equal to the task of conveying facts. The concept of “invasive alien species”, however, falls far short of these requirements. First of all, it is highly charged emotionally: “Help, we are being invaded!” Instead of “invasive” we could say “highly successful”, or “adaptable”, or “intelligent”. The scientific facts behind the statements would remain exactly the same. We would simply be adding the extra semantic layer of “aren’t they wonderful” instead of “help, we are being invaded!”. A more neutral expression would be “wide-spread” species – scientific fact, and nothing else. Plus, the word “alien” in this context sounds biased. It has the connotation of either “alien from outer space” or “does not belong here”. But “does not belong here” is not an evidence-based judgement, it is a value judgement. Habitats change, sometimes beyond all recognition, and an animal that did well in it 300 years ago (such as the red squirrel) is not necessarily going to do well in the new changed habitat, whereas an introduced species (such as the grey squirrel) can become an accidental, but nonetheless good ecological fit. So why should the history of dispersal, rather than present-day ecological fitness determine who belongs and who does not? The neutral expression “wide-spread introduced species” seems far more appropriate for scientific communication than the emotive and biased “invasive alien species”. “Invasive alien species” terminology is also problematic in purely scientific terms. As an instrument for formulating and exchanging scientific ideas, it is too blunt. As Andrew Chew and Matthew Hamilton point out in an essay entitled “The Rise and Fall of Biotic Nativeness: A Historical Perspective”, the term in question does not accomplish any theoretical work, other than justifying human intervention in nature. The authors point out that the very idea of biotic nativeness is scientifically obsolete. They write: “This is a pre-Darwinian conceptual framework, worked out before a full description of natural selection, before ecology and genetics; and none of these offer to reinvigorate it.” In other words, if scientific research and communication is guided by “invasive alien species” considerations, it amounts to taking modern science and stuffing it into a pre-Darwinian conceptual straightjacket. And it gets worse. In an article published recently in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, Meera Iona Inglis notes a parallel between automatic rejection of introduced animal species with the portrayal of human immigrants as dangerous invaders – something that makes “invasive alien species” rhetoric both misleading and morally inappropriate. It is worth noting that many social media accounts that advocate the killing of grey squirrels, for example, will also carry politically far right content.In the same article Dr Inglis highlights yet another moral problem with the “invasion” narrative. Vilifying introduced species can be a distraction from far more significant problems in conservation, problems that relate to human activity. “The invasive species discourse is too often used as a political tool to scapegoat other living things for problems that are in fact caused or exacerbated by humans,” she writes. To illustrate her argument, one could add the following point. The latest UK State of Nature Report points to two main problems for wildlife: intensive farming and climate change. But tackling these issues would bring the government into conflict with powerful human interest, whereas grey squirrels, and other “invasive alien species”, are an easy target and can be legislated against with impunity.Perhaps the most famous, and certainly articulate, public opponent of the “invasion” narrative is the award-winning environmental journalist Fred Pearce. In his book entitled “The New Wild”, with the subtitle of “Why Invasive Species Will be Nature’s Salvation”, he argues that we should rather celebrate the “new wild” of a mix of species, including non-native ones, who are, in many cases, nature’s own way of overcoming the damage that homo sapiens has done to the common environment. An example that he does not give, but that easily comes to mind, is our own grey squirrel. Our current habitat, except for some parts of Scotland, simply cannot support red squirrel populations. But the far more adaptable grey squirrels can survive in our ecological mess and perform the role in the ecosystem that their red cousins used to play. And are we grateful? No, we choose to label “invasive” and persecute the species that is Nature’s own way of dealing with the environmental problems that we created.As with all public discussion, any criticism also draws counter-criticism. Those who object to the use of “invasive alien species” vocabulary have been called science-deniers. This counter-criticism, however, rather misses the point of exactly what is denied. It is not the science that is rejected, but the conceptual tools that the science operates with, it is not the same thing. Science does not make moral decisions for us. Science can tell us, for example, that in certain habitats one species outcompete another (e.g. the grey squirrel outcompetes the red in most British habitats). But science does not then tell us to kill off the more successful grey squirrels and artificially maintain the red squirrels in conditions that are not suitable for them. This is a moral decision, and one that is not helped by the automatic adoption of “invasion” terminology.So let us not be taken in by words. “Invasive alien species” rhetoric leads to animal cruelty on a massive scale. Once labelled “invasive alien species”, animals lose what little moral protection they had, and are exposed to unimaginable mistreatment, from being denied help by vets to being culled (another euphemism for killed, of course) in their thousands and millions. Grey squirrels, for example, are trapped, transferred to a bag and hit on the head by an army of volunteers recruited by conservation charities. These acts were first described as “bludgeoning” in the press, but the newspapers were later forced to change this to “cranial dispatch” – another linguistic trick for us to watch out for. Some other examples of language being used to cover up activities that the public may find distasteful are: “managing the ecosystem”, “protecting biodiversity”, “balancing the habitat”. These can all be euphemisms for killing animals that some humans think should not be there. If we love animals, we should be careful about the language we use, and be prepared to examine the language that others use, so that we do not sleepwalk into condoning animal cruelty that is normally abhorrent to us. In the English-speaking world we have all heard that “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me”. For millions of animals it is, sadly, not true.