First, a confession. Many years ago, I worked as a press officer for a small national wildlife charity. I found this quite a challenging job at the time, not least because the creatures whose declining fortunes I was promoting were frogs and toads, and national news editors have far less interest in frogs and toads than you might imagine. For many years, while my peers in other wildlife charities garnered all sorts of front-page stories, I failed to make even a news in brief section with my stories.
But then it happened for me. There was one day, after many years trying, I hit gold. I had written a press release about some escapee North American bullfrogs breeding in the UK for the first time and there was interest in this story. Finally, after so long trying, I made a front page. It’s just that … well … I had made the front page of the British National party website. It was quite unsettling. To the BNP, these boggle-eyed unthinking expressions of amphibian diversity were a handy hook upon which they could hang their xenophobia.
“Just a bit of fun,” I was told when I complained. I agreed with this statement at the time because frogs are fun, but I was less certain about the BNP being “fun”. Thank goodness, therefore, that white nationalism seems to have gone away now …
I have been watchful for these strange outbursts of “xenozoophobia” in the media ever since, and I have not been let down. Grey squirrels, ring-necked parakeets, mink, eastern European demon shrimp, Spanish slugs – some papers can’t help but use creatures like these to carry forward their isolationist fantasies. We hear it reported that “the country is under attack” from “armies” of these creatures, even though most are so tiny and nondescript that they would struggle normally to even hold our interest, let alone hold a rifle. Yet they are a menace to be feared, we’re told. A scourge. Though the conservation concern is real and can be incredibly serious, it is the language (and the nationalist rhetoric that it mimics) that I have always found troublesome: the reds (or should that be greys?) under the bed.
This week, I heard a new, more subtle form of xenozoophobia. On Friday I read that, as well as being armies of invaders, some non-native, invasive animals can also be considered “expats”, foreign zoological residents worthy of shipping home to native countries should governments deem it necessary. It’s true. The Times told me. “Send expat animals home, say scientists” its headline said, referring to interesting research which highlights the role that non-native populations may play in “buffering” population declines in their native species’ ranges. “A study has argued,” The Times writes, “… that it may be time to send them back where they came from …”
Send them back? Goodness, this is new ground. What novel rhetoric is this? But, you know, maybe the Times really is on to something. Perhaps we really should entertain the idea that animals be considered “expats” for a moment. Donkeys, for instance. We have thousands of donkeys in sanctuaries in this country. Perhaps it’s time we sent some packing back to Africa where they came from. And those grey squirrels, eh? Look at the damage they have caused to our native reds. Isn’t it time those lazy Americans picked up the tab for the vital conservation work we undertake? And what about those Romans bringing those rabbits here, eh? Christ, let’s not start with them, the bloody elitist European bastards.
In fact, come to think of it, our wild places are overrun with European invaders. Those frogs and snakes and deer and otters and badgers and newts which selfishly made their way over here via the land bridge that linked us to Europe briefly after the last big Ice Age must be sent home. I for one, won’t be happy until it’s just me and true natives on these islands. British ecosystems for British wildlife. I want a land devoid of expats: me, an endemic micromoth, a Scottish wildcat and a Skomer vole. What an awful world that would be.
Quips like these in the popular press remind me of the fabled naturalist who holds a magnifying glass up to nature, only to describe their own reflection. And here, I believe, the words say more about the readers, than the science. There are no armies. There are no expats. There are only animals.
Deep down, many generations ago, we all come from worlds without arbitrary borders, where nations and concepts of repatriation mean nothing. Every life form alive today has a history someplace else, if you go far enough back. But let’s not consider that, right? It’s only a bit of fun, after all.