Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Killing Insects: The Moral Dilemma

I have a complicated relationship with cockroaches. When my family first moved into our third home we suffered a deluge of cockroaches swarming our home as soon as we flicked the light switches off. This wasn’t helped by the fact that for a large period of renovations our back wall consisted of a tarp (safety!). For months it didn’t matter how much surface spray we flooded our kitchen in, they just wouldn’t seem to go away. The renos finished, still the Cockies remained, until one fateful day.

In order to transform the tired old small Queenslander my parent’s had purchased into an entertainer’s dream home, it was necessary, according to my Dad, to add a large deck on the back of the house, since the previous deck was soon to be a room. In order to do that he would have to chop down the huge palm tree which sat directly behind the old deck. So Dad called some of the other Dads from around our place to bring their chainsaws to help him complete the tough man-work job of cutting down the tree. Had they known the horror in store, I’m sure they would have asked for more than just a six-pack for their assistance.

(Don’t worry, no one loses a limb in this story... And the whole debacle was disappointingly less lumberjack-esque than I’d envisioned.)

Dad and one of my sister’s friend’s dads prepare to cut down the tree, chopping a small chunk of wood out in order for the tree to fall in the correct fashion, that is, not onto the house. And then the got their chainsaw ready. They cut into the tree.

And cockroaches, hundreds of them, like a scene from The Mummy, pour out of the dead tree and onto our lawn, scattering in every direction.

After a few months it was as if they’d disappeared. Our house was relatively pest free, the kitchen and bathrooms no longer ruled by our insect overlords. We were finally free.

My fear of cockroaches isn’t tied so much to the fact that they’re dirty, or can apparently live through nuclear devastation. No, it is more that I remember back to a time when they ruled my house by night, and personally victimised my little sisters and myself each time we’d turn off the light.

Lauren asked me a few weeks ago what my stance on bug killing is, seeing as I’m vegetarian and generally against humans killing other animals for little to no other reason than they’re delicious or in our way. After a few moments pondering, I replied that it depends on what the type of bug is, whether it could be harmful, whether I’ve got the balls to actually go near it in order to squash it under my shoe, and whether it is small enough to avoid lengthy clean up procedures. It is a moral dilemma though. Live and let live, after all, and what about the ol’ Paul Mccartney quote about slaughterhouses having glass walls? That little bug couldn’t help that it was born a fly/moth/mosquito/beetle etc. and it could have just as easily been born a pig, cow, duck or chicken, the animals I put so much effort into not-killing… had it’s parents not been insects… Obviously.

This weekend my mother saved me from two giant cockroaches (seriously, they breed ‘em big up North) after my feeble attempts to bug-spray them were unsuccessful. They were so big my Mum needed one of those larger, “man” size tissues to clean off the half of it that was left on her shoe. They were big, scary and crawling all over the couch where I was going to sleep. What was I meant to do? Shoo them away and then choke to death on them when they crawl on my face in the middle of the night? No thanks, pass me the bug spray… And then after a bit of squealing get my Mum for me.

The decision whether or not to assert yourself as a dominant species really depends though on what type of bug you’re talking about/is threatening your welfare. I feel they can be split into a few different categories:

Harmless: These guys tend to keep to themselves and eat a pesky fly, aphid or mozzie every so often. Should be left alone and not killed, resulting in good karma and fewer annoying insects inhabiting your home and garden. Example: The Daddy Long Legs spider that hangs out behind your loo, the Lady Beetles on your Rose garden.

Annoying but mostly harmless: Sure, these guys might drive you bonkers, but they’re just doing their thing. Should be mostly relocated. Killing them is bad juju, but acceptable if the only alternative is throwing your expensive computer down a flight of stairs. Consider the annoying buzz a test from the universe/god to make you a stronger, more patient and calm person. Example: the fly.

Harmless but scary looking: These guys are the ones whose shiny exoskeletons have been used in designs for horror film monsters since the genre began. They cause fear and screaming wherever they roam. These guys are where my moral stance goes slippery slidey, as when I see them my brain shouts, “Kill! Kill!”, but my heart says “What did they ever do to you?!”, and I find myself stuck in a ethical conundrum. Spiders are scary after all, but just because they freak the living heck out of me, does that mean it deserves to die? What is life like for a spider? And what does it mean to take that away? If the arachnid is clever he would have scarpered by the time I get to the questions of morality and existentialism, if not, he may get a fatal thong (flip-flop) to the face depending on which way my moral compass is pointing on that day.

Harmful and/or Scary: They carry diseases, or they bite or sting you. These little bastards seem to live entirely to make humans suffer (see paper wasp) or itch uncontrollably (see: mosquito). Some are even deadly. If it could kill me, I like to kill it before it gets the chance, especially if it’s small enough to flick off my weapon of choice, usually a shoe. If it’s going to suck my blood, it can prepare to meet its maker. If it’s going to make a painful welt that won’t go away for days despite how long I leave a cold compress on it, I’ll try to make the process quick and painless. This is especially the case if I know they’ll get violent when threatened (see: wasps in general) and children may be around.

Too big to kill without having to buy a ShamWow or plot at the local cemetery: These guys are the type that Aussies like mention to Americans and Brits in order to give them reoccurring nightmares for all eternity. Their sizes are often compared to dinner plates. These guys, if mostly harmless, may scare the bejeezus out of you, but if you were to kill them, they would be far too big to flush down the toilet, and it would probably be necessary to hold a burial for them, since they’re practically the size of most pets anyway. The Hunstman Spider is an example, and these guys apparently love to eat cockroaches, so if you can stand their eight beady eyes on you while you watch Sex and The City you’ll probably be much better off for having one around, as long as you don’t get in their way. If you can’t stand the thought of their hairy bodies being within a five metre radius of you, it is much better to call for a braver person to relocate them to a garden or pretend they aren’t there.

So there is the conclusion of my search into my own ethical stance on killing bugs. After all, many religions –Christianity, Buddhism - teach that killing and causing destruction is wrong. The bible doesn’t say, “Thou Shalt Not Kill… except-crickets-those-jumpy-little-assholes-freak-me-out”. It is a known fact that animal abuse can be linked to domestic violence and serious crime. Where do we draw the line? When does it become okay for fishing trawlers to “accidentally” kill other species of fish in the process of their catch? When does it become okay to genetically modify chickens and turkeys so that they can no longer walk properly? If it’s okay to kill a harmless spider, what other harmless things is it okay to kill?

Where we draw the line in our everyday lives is where we as a culture push for the line to be drawn in industry. How we behave towards animals, let them be our pets, our meals, or even, dare I suggest it, the insects which happen to come near our living spaces should align with the ethical standards we hold for ourselves and want our children to also uphold. When we relocate a harmless spider instead of giving it the stomp of death, do we not teach our children that a more peaceful world can exist if we simply make an effort? When we refrain from squashing the Daddy Long Legs that lives in the bathroom don’t we teach our children about the delicate balance of living things that needs to be sustained within an ecosystem?

I don’t know, but maybe we would all have a much better karma if we put some serious (over) thinking to good use on topics such as this one.

(But let’s not even get me started on the ethics of using fly spray. Call me over sensitive, but I’ve felt bad about that one ever since I saw Schindler’s List).

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