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house guests, house pests

11 october 2023

Richard Jones' House Guests, House Pests (2015) seems a classic among popular-naturalist books. I was directed to Jones' book by a different book that I started on the same topic: animals that take up residence inside human homes. I don't remember the title or author; it wasn't very good, but it kept referencing Jones' as the book one should go to. So I did.

It shouldn't happen. Houses, Jones notes, are built to keep animals out. Animals, but also the elements, and especially water. They are pre-eminently dry places, and much as animals by definition live outdoors, they too need shelter from the wet, so they keep invading ours. Houses are warm in the winter and are used for food storage. No wonder we have company.

Of course I had to take stock of the animals that live with us in our own house. Cats, of course, and pets do feature in Jones' inventory. But he does not talk much about more exotic pets that have to be caged or aquariumed to live indoors. Cats and dogs alone seem to be the only invited guests that typically have the run of the place.

Cats, and then cockroaches. If you live in Texas, in a 70-year-old house, on a wooded lot, you cannot get rid of cockroaches. You can poison and bedroom-slipper them down to a reasonable profile, but at some point you have to just live with them. I learned from a book by Marion Copeland how to appreciate cockroaches (who are resourceful, clean, and mainly just want to get away from you), but they remain the one household animal that we step on rather than rescue.

Jones writes a lot about wasps, and I'd learned from his book Wasp that these social critters are largely beneficial and unaggressive. They do not live right inside our house, but often build nests right under the eaves, especially near the back door. As long as you don't freak out every time you see a wasp – and I have gotten much better about this – they are good house guests to have patrolling the garden, in search of actual pests.

Earwigs, ants at times, flies of course, and probably a hundred other insect species that I can't identify or even see. Many come in and just try to get back out again. Jones is an entomologist, and he very thoroughly lists the insects that are likely to be in a house – if it's an English house, anyway. He is an English entomologist and House Guests, House Pests is very Anglocentric. But there are lots of parallels between the house fauna in England and the house fauna here. Stored food, wooden beams, and the bodies of the mammal residents (more the cats than ours, I am happy to say) are among the favorite habitats for house insects, everywhere.

Geckos are common sights in our house, though my partner usually evicts them in the guise of rescuing them. I am not sure the geckos want to be rescued. There's lots of insect food indoors, and the cats are easy to avoid, and we wouldn't hurt a gecko. I think they like it here. We are also very tolerant of spiders, and Jones approves. Like geckos, all spiders do is stay quietly in corners and eat insects. People should appreciate spiders more.

Lots of animals live very close to our house without entering it. Raccoons have sometimes come in for a snack of cat food. Squirrels, though, stay outside, as do most of the birds who live nearby. The exception, sort of, are house wrens, who build false nests in our mailbox.

Large, uncaged, invited animals, in Jones' taxonomy, are limited to dogs and cats. But guinea pigs are commensal house pets in South America. I have been in houses in South America where uncaged toucans and parrots came and went freely. For that matter, my partner reports a mourning dove who would come into her Texas apartment to sleep at night, and then leave when everyone else went to work or school in the morning. And I have been in old Icelandic houses where, at least many decades ago, sheep and cattle routinely lived downstairs while the humans took the upper storey.

Jones, Richard. House Guests, House Pests: A natural history of animals in the home. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.