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How Pigeons Became Rats: The Cultural-Spatial Logic of Problem Animals

Colin Jerolmack
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/sp.2008.55.1.72 72-94 First published online: 1 February 2008


How do animals become problems? Drawing on interactionist theories of social problems and cultural geography, I argue that the construction of animals as problems relies upon cultural understandings of nature/culture relationships, which in turn entail “imaginative geographies.” Specifically, modernity posits a firm boundary between nature and culture. Animals have their place, but are experienced as “out of place”—and often problematic—when they are perceived to transgress spaces designated for human habitation. Relying on New York Times articles from 1851 to 2006, and articles from 51 other newspapers from 1980 to 2006, this article focuses on the process by which pigeons as a species were problematized. I contend that pigeons have come to represent the antithesis of the ideal metropolis, which is orderly and sanitized, with nature subdued and compartmentalized. While typified as a health issue, the pigeon's primary “offense” is that it “pollutes” habitats dedicated for human use. The catch phrase “rats with wings” neatly summarizes society's evaluations of, and anxieties about, this bird. This metaphor reflects a framing of pigeons by claims-makers that renders them out of place in the cityscape. This study expands social problems theorizing to more thoroughly account for animals and the role of space.

  • animals
  • nature
  • culture
  • space
  • environment

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