Obsession Story: Mike Bierschenk and Vermin

November 26, 2018
Block O

For this series, we reach out to a member of the department who has a very particular obsession and ask them to share it with the world. In this edition, Educational Technologist Mike Bierschenk gushes over his favorite category of fuzzy (and shiny) friends.

Okay then, let’s talk about vermin.

I know: this is not a popular topic. When we talk about the animals that share space with us without asking our permission, sometimes even against our will, we use this ugly word, ‘vermin’. It’s a word that puts distance between us and them, that separates out good from bad, wanted from unwanted. But just as a plant might be a noxious weed in one yard and a purposefully cultivated showpiece next door, an unwanted vermin in one person’s eyes is a really, really cool co-inhabitant of our environment in somebody else’s. Probably in mine.

Because I am obsessed with vermin. They are my favorites. Don’t get me wrong, I like the ‘normal’ animals too — I am a prototypical internet denizen, gaga over my cats (who are the most precious of all furbabies, of course). But past the usual suspects, I love all the unloved ones: raccoons, possums, bats, praying mantises, spiders, house centipedes, I am there.

Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit: the common raccoon (Procyon lotor). Raccoons were, I think, my gateway vermin. I recall boring my grandmother to death around age six or seven, carrying around a thin National Geographic photo book all about them, asking her repeatedly “But why do they wash their food, Grammie? What if it’s a dry food, do they wash it then?” And really, this isn’t too much of a stretch for most people; with their fluffy coats, friendly striped tails, and bandit masks, raccoons are already cute and appealing. They even get an image makeover on the internet: not simply raccoons, they are loveable trash pandas. Once you add in their humanlike propensity for washing their food, they’re almost custom-designed to be endearing. Somehow this endearment endures, even despite their equally strong propensity for ripping a hole in your siding and squatting in your attic. When I see a raccoon scrubbling across my back deck, I don’t think ‘house-shredder’. I make an excited noise usually reserved for particularly cute babies.

So first it’s raccoons. And then it’s possums. I know, I know, the popular conception is that they’re basically overgrown rats — which makes a lot of presumptions about rats that I won’t go into here — but hear me out. The Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) is the only native marsupial north of Mexico, which alone should be enough to earn it some respect. Growing up in the United States, I learned about exotic Australian marsupials like koalas, kangaroos, and Tasmanian devils with fascination, marveling at how they carried their young in an abdominal pouch: so cute! But somehow our own hometown marsupials were relegated to undesirable status, instead of being the source of equal fascination. And there’s more. They may “play dead” when threatened, involuntarily going into a sort of slowed existence where their heartbeat and breathing rates drops to a fraction of normal, which is akin to a superpower. They are quite resistant to rabies and eat disease-carrying ticks, which makes the urban environments they inhabit safer for us: superheroes. And, delight of delights, their furless little fingers make them appear to be wearing fingerless gloves: fashionable superheroes.

But my love of the unloved goes way beyond mammals. For example, the praying mantises (family Mantidae). They are otherworldly insects that stand on four legs and hold aloft two barbed forelegs (called, no kidding, raptorial legs) like some sort of scifi-horror monster while they cock their hypermobile triangular heads in ways that are by turns alien and all too human. Many mantid sexual encounters end in sexual cannibalism, the female eating the male after her eggs have been fertilized: gruesome. And, to return to those raptorial forelegs, they are skilled ambush predators, often feeding on much larger vertebrates, even birds (warning: graphic images at link). In short, they are creepy. And yet, I feel a strong affection for these vicious killers. They’re awe-inspiring in their strength and agility. Like possums, they benefit us directly, feeding on pest insects that damage crops. And moreover, there’s a spiritual significance to them: praying mantises are or have been revered in cultures ranging from southwestern Africa to the eastern Mediterranean as, variously, trickster deities, psychopomps, and magicians. Mantis may be a killer, but they’re a friendly and a beautiful one.

My vermin-love gets furthest from the fold closest to home. When I moved back to Ohio for my MFA in Creative Writing, I moved into an old, damp apartment in South Clintonville, where for the first time I encountered the house centipede, Scutigera coleoptrata (they do live where I grew up, in Texas, but usually outside in that warmer climate). You’ve probably seen them: longish grey-brown bugs with dramatically arched legs, up to 15 pairs of them, which when startled scurry away at alarmingly high speed. Cats love to chase them, and most people I know are thoroughly creeped out by them. They’re everything that raccoons aren’t: chitinous and spiny-looking, unpredictably fast, no discernible head or tail thanks to their automimic evolution, much less a cute friendly face. And yet Scutigera’s relationship with its housemates is mutually beneficial, far more so than (say) house-destroying raccoons: the house centipede gets a safe, warm dwelling, and it generally shies away from human contact (albeit with unearthly speed — their locomotion is sort of amazing). In return it eats far more pernicious insect invaders: roaches, moths, bedbugs, silverfish, earwigs. (Even I don’t like earwigs.) After a few startling encounters and a little research, I stopped being bothered by them, and eventually I realized that I was actually happy to see Scutigera, all 30 legs of it. My vermin obsession strikes again.

I haven’t written 900 words on various vermin just to gush about some of my favorite animals, though it’s a nice exercise to skim the surface of my interest in them. I think there’s something important in seeing animals on their own terms, and in challenging my initial reactions to the creatures that I share my world with. Partly, this is a spiritual exercise: part of my work in neopaganism is to cultivate relationships with the spirits all around us, and in fact both Raccoon and Mantis have a place on my altar, thanks in part to these contemplations. But beyond my personal religious practice, thinking of ‘vermin’ as an Other — and questioning the terms of that Otherness — is useful training for approaching difference throughout my life. I don’t mean to imply that you have to like possums (or spiders, or bats, or house centipedes) to be a “good person,” and I am deeply aware that relations between and among people, cultures, and nations are far more complex than my reactions to any particular animal I encounter. And yet, the language of verminhood has an appalling history in the subjugation and dehumanization of the oppressed, up through to our present day. It’s the work of every one of us to break down systems of oppression that we’ve internalized, and if my obsession with maligned animals helps me with that — and if as a minor byproduct I get to delight in scurrying alien bugs or stripey, witch-handed fluffs — I’ll happily accept it.

Obsessed with our Obsession Stories? Check out previous editions: