When most people see something slithery in their yards, the immediate thoughts of “kill it” and “I want it gone” cross their minds.
But what are the actual repercussions of inhumane pest disposal?
According to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, a total 13 rattlesnake species live in Arizona.
Bryan Hughes, owner of Rattlesnake Solutions and amateur field herpetologist, is used to getting calls about some of these species.
“If we get a call, the first thing we do is assess the situation to see if we can help and it also tells us how much time we have to get there,” Hughes said.
“Basically, we ask where it is and what it’s doing. From that, we can get all the information we need,” he added. “If it’s a rattlesnake, which is most of our calls, we will ask them to stay put and look at it. That’s kind of complicated because people don’t want to be looking at a snake to begin with, that’s why they’re calling us.”
Hughes, who is working on a field project with the Phoenix Mountain Reserves on dead animals in the wild, has witnessed the effects of inhumane forms of pest control.
“One of those would be poison traps for rodents, and we see the effects of that,” he said. “We’ve seen snakes that have ingested poison rodents and are killed by it. Bobcats, owls and other animals are killed by that poison as well.”
During his field project, “Some of the rattlesnakes I’ve tagged are dead only in neighborhoods where traps are heavily used.”
Katelyn Garcia, education and outreach director at the Phoenix Herpetological Society, said small prey animals that feed larger reptiles can have a larger impact on the environment and humans.
“People see them, they know that they’re venomous. They’d rather have it dead than be around their kids or pets, which we hear all the time.”
But reptiles not only eat rodents but also “do more beneficial things like spread seeds,” Garcia said.
“So when they eat one of those rodents with a bunch of seeds in their mouth, their digestive tract actually germinate those seeds, and then they spread it when they go to the bathroom.”
Garcia believes poison traps dramatically affect the environment.
“Glue traps are another awful, awful thing that people use,” Garcia said. “They put them out because, again, they’re worried about themselves or their family but those animals are stuck, suffering for days sometimes and reptiles are so resilient they can last months without food and water…to be stuck in it is just torture.”
Trash left behind can also affect the local wildlife.
James O’Brien, a veterinary technician at the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center, has seen such cases first-hand.
“Game and Fish brought us a javelina about a year ago, where the game warden actually saw the javelina playing with a box of rodenticide,” O’Brien said, saying the javelina was “throwing it up in the air and catching it, chewing on it.”
Across the country, rehabilitators and sanctuaries are pushing for more humane pest control.
One method O’Brien recommends isn’t a standard form of pest control – including fences that “deliver a little buzz” to a dog wearing a shock collar.
He said he’s watched what happens when coyotes near his neighbor’s yard.
“I’ve actually watched wild coyotes try to bait the dog out but they will not cross that line,” he said. “I don’t know how that process works but I know when I go home tonight, I’ll see those three coyotes right on the edge of their yard and their dog on the other side.”
Dr. Dawn Gouge, a public health entomologist at the University of Arizona, sees the decision between helping people and saving living creatures as a difficult choice.
“I am a vegetarian veteran so I have to start by saying that I hate killing or hurting any living creature. But some pests do immeasurable harm to people,” Gouge said. “I guess I decided long ago to put people first.”
Sometimes, killing certain species also benefits for the environment.
“I get a large number of calls from homeowners worried about wild honey bees in Arizona,” Gouge said. “When colonies can be moved, that’s preferable. But sometimes they cannot be relocated safely and have to be killed. Little do most people know that wild honey bees were historically an invasive species and have displaced many of the native bees.
“The Sonoran desert region has more than 1,000 bee species and areas around Tucson host a greater diversity of bee species than anywhere else in the world.”
Gouge feels that there are certain types of pest control that have a negative impact on the environment regardless of which species you use them on.
“There are rodenticide baits that cause painful rodent deaths and secondary poisonings of non-target wildlife and other animals,” Gouge said.
“Similarly, there are bird toxicants that cause disturbing bird fatalities and secondary poisonings. Lethal traps can cause slow and agonizing deaths, such as rodent glue boards.”
She said glue boards also impact “non-target animals” while snap traps “do not kill rodents instantly, they often suffocate them.”
Gouge feels that while some pest-management products shouldn’t be used, “overuse or misuse of even a relatively benign product can do environmental damage.”
“Ecosystems are dynamic in nature and humans are an influential part of that ecosystem,” Gouge said. “Luckily for us nature is resilient, but large-scale control of any pest organism can cause ecosystem changes.”