Learning to Live With Unwanted Intruders

Learning to live with unwanted household pests can make your skin crawl, but take this author's advice.

Here is a list of the tools that have failed me in a year-long quest to destroy a colony of fruit flies taking over our family’s home: 

  • Wine glass covered with hole-punched plastic wrap
  • Poison spray and drain cleaners
  • Fly swatter (holes too big for microscopic, agile insects)
  • $45 fluorescent-lighted trap with $15 of replacement glue pads
  • Plastic apple-shaped traps filled with vinegar

The bugs dart around, roost on the ceiling, and hang out in the sink unabated, taunting us. They are this little annoyance we cannot vanquish, an itch on your back you can’t reach – for going on 15 months now.

If the fruit flies are a steady background hum in our lives, we also have rarer pest appearances that are more like startling, staccato bangs: dead mouse on the living room couch, rat in the propane grill, raccoon in the outdoor trash can, songbirds in our bedroom, moles building a vast network of tunnels under our backyard.

Add all these pests up and my wife and I are close to losing our minds. What are we supposed to do?

One option would be to live and let live, St. Francis of Assisi style. What might he say to me if he traveled through time and visited our house, catching me with poison fruit fly spray in hand?  “These creatures are autonomous non-human persons, beloved creations of God” or “They are invading our territory, but haven’t we done the same to animals for millennia?” Or perhaps, “You might not want them around, but you have to see them as more than just pests.”

To imaginary St. Francis, I would say: Nope. 

I didn’t have pets growing up. So most animals scare me, even the cute, cuddly ones. If you want to see the most awkward thing a human can do, watch me attempt to pet a dog. Our kids made us get a betta fish, which we had for three years before I accidentally killed it with a too-hot water change last month. Seeing Abraham the fish moving out of the corner of my eye always gave me the creeps. The idea that I might be able to have a more generous attitude not just toward domesticated animals but rodents and insects is hard for me to imagine.

I will say, though, that our animal-obsessed children have opened my mind and heart a little. We have taken them to zoos and aquariums, plus monthly field trips to the pet store just to look around and waste half an hour. And the things we have seen are awesome in the truest sense of that word: puffins speeding around underwater, a cheetah sprinting, a blue lobster. It is easier for me to appreciate them when they’re behind a fence or in a tank far away from my own house. I look closely and am reminded of Psalm 92: “How great are your works, O Lord.” 

A holy and wonderful old friend of mine recites that Bible verse not when she sees something cool, but when she’s thinking about a person who annoys her. Creation is so vast – full of beauty, yes, and also things we do not understand or appreciate, humans and nonhumans we wish would leave us alone. But the reality is we share the same world. We have to deal with that.

Back to my original question, then: How am I going to deal with this? Honestly, when it comes to pest control, I’m probably going to keep doing what I’m doing — play-acting as an angel of death. I do worry a little about what years of repeated animal extermination is doing to my soul (and we haven’t even gotten to my meat-eating habit). Am I too comfortable taking the life of an animal? Is my lack of feeling here harming my ability to be more empathetic, even with humans? It’s hard to say, but it’s worth considering.

Regardless, I can try to learn something from our unwanted guests, to think about them more gently. The lesson for now: I am not in control, not really. It’s nice to pretend we have our lives set just the way we want them, but that’s an illusion. Accepting this may not change my circumstances, but it can help me release some of the frustration I feel when these unexpected pests appear. “Enlightenment,” said the Jesuit spiritual writer Anthony de Mello, is “absolute cooperation with the inevitable.” The next fruit fly swarm or rat in your grill is never that far off.

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