A tale of mosquitoes and limited compassion

Female mosquito, unholy terror of the tropics


That’s the total number of mosquito bites I received last week in Hawaii. Nineteen, despite trying to apply IPM with physical controls (long sleeves and long pants every single day — as a result of which I was bitten on the face, neck, fingers, and feet), cultural controls (dumping out any standing water and avoiding being outside from 5-8pm), and finally chemical controls (some all natural insect repellent that gave both Kevin and me headaches).

Of course, I started thinking evil thoughts about mosquitoes long before reaching 19. I’m not lucky enough to get small, well-behaved, M&M sized bumps. My bites turn into painful, raised hives 1-2″ across that itch irresistibly, swell into water blisters, and leave bruises (especially when I don’t touch them) that hang around for months afterwards.

hate mosquitoes. They, unfortunately, can’t get enough of me.

At 4AM one morning, I awoke to the sounds of tropical birds, soft rain, and the unquenchable itch of the many mosquito bites that had woken me up. As I lay there awake, willing myself not to scratch, I found myself fantasizing about creating a highly contagious mosquito virus that would scramble the DNA of all the little bloodsuckers. (Someone has beat me to it.) Mosquitoes are not native to Hawaii, so I didn’t even feel too bad as I imagined wiping out every last mosquito on the bloody island. If that didn’t work, my busy mind considered engineering super flying geckos to eat more mosquitoes, or (more realistically) setting out a sacrificial dish of blood as a trap and directing a concentrated stream of DEET straight into the writhing mass.

(I’m actually cringing a bit writing this, now that I’m no longer unbearably itchy.) At that point, I realized that there was a definite limit to my compassion for animals and that I had definitely reached it.

As a vegetarian, I don’t eat animals. When asked why, my standard answer is that I like animals more than I like to eat them. This is generally true. The friendships I’ve had with my companion animals have convinced me that if I can be healthy without meat, I’d rather not have all that death on my conscience. My choice not to eat meat has very little to do with the environment. Instead, it’s about the relationship I want to have with the animals that I share this planet with.

But the truth is that I don’t like all animals, I don’t feel equal amounts of compassion for all animals all the time, and there are circumstances under which I would be willing to hurt or kill animals. Disturbingly, those circumstances are easier to reach than I anticipated. Under the veneers of language, philosophy, and morality, my brain still has a primitive us vs. them mentality.

Sometimes I wonder if my vegetarianism and compassion for animals is a product of a sheltered suburban existence in which I am almost never in competition with other animals. I live on a second story, in a fairly dry environment, surrounded by miles of asphalt. We have had minor issues with ants and carpet beetles, but no centipedes, fire ants, wasps, black widows, or anything dangerous. If we had those, I am 100% positive I would not be looking for a peaceful and compassionate way to co-exist. Does it even make sense to choose not to eat meat, yet mercilessly poison an entire ant colony with borax (after, admittedly, trying deterrents and other less extreme measures)? How close am I, are all of us, to being red in tooth and claw when our safety, territory, or even comfort are threatened? 

The relationship between humans and other animals gets a big check mark in the ‘it’s complicated’ box.

I’m curious how you navigate conflicts with other animals, especially if you follow a compassionate diet. Can you uphold that compassion when there’s a direct conflict of interest with another animal (mosquitoes, but also decidedly cuter, more empathetic animals like squirrels and mice)?

Photo credit: dr_relling


33 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by EcoCatLady on 05/17/2012 at 21:50

    Oh my… First of all, I have the utmost sympathy for the mosquito bites. I got stung by something today, and since I’ve had some nasty allergic reactions in the past, this meant instant downing of antihistamine, and sitting there for a half an hour with EpiPen in hand & 911 on the speed dial in case I felt a severe reaction coming on – fortunately, I’m fine.

    I try to uphold the “live and let live” strategy, but after several trips to the ER and a week on steroids a few summers back, I’ve declared an all out war on the yellow jackets. That summer I resorted to calling the exterminators who found and destroyed a total of 7 – yes SEVEN nests in my yard and my neighbor’s yard… one of which was a few feet from my back door. I now have a yellow jacket trap in the yard which has already trapped and killed about 30 of the suckers so far this year. The way I see it, this is a potentially life threatening situation for me, and if it’s me or the yellow jackets… well… I choose me.

    I also showed no mercy a number of years ago when I found an infestation of black widow spiders near the basement windows where my cats hang out. I didn’t really want to kill them, but one black widow bite can kill a cat, and I don’t think I would have been able to forgive myself if I’d lost one of my babies that way.

    All that being said, when the “pests” aren’t making me miserable, or presenting a threat to my health or that of the ones I love, I try to be kind. I am forever trapping wayward insects who wander into the house and releasing them… that is if the cats don’t find and eat them first. The vet swears insects are a natural part of their diet, but it’s sort of hard to watch your sweet cuddly cat with a mouthful of squirming moth.

    Of course it’s better than when I was a kid and we had outdoor cats… that was kind of like watching a National Geographic special. One minute my cute kitty is sitting in the yard, the next he’s lunging after a squirrel, going for the jugular… seriously, he killed it dead in mere seconds. It sort of became a habit, and I’d often come home from school to find half a squirrel in the living room. Oy!

    Anyhow, I guess this is a long and rambling way of saying that I think it’s all relative. I mean we, as humans are part of the natural world, and as such, killing for food and to defend ourselves pretty much goes with the territory. That being said, I try to be as compassionate as possible.

    BTW – too late now, but I’ve heard that if you eat nutritional yeast it makes your blood taste bad and the mosquitoes leave you alone. It’s great on popcorn!


    • Hi Cat,

      Yikes, that sounds like a bad allergy. I think you’re totally justified in getting rid of yellow jacket hives in your yard since they are in fact life threatening for you. My reaction to mosquitoes falls within the normal range…well, the I’m-going-to-scream-with-vexation end of normal, anyway. I don’t kill [non-poisonous] spiders around the house. Kevin transports them outside, and anyway, I feel like spiders are basically a self-controlling population, if a little less cute than geckos. I’m willing to leave alone anything that doesn’t significantly lower my quality of life or show signs of an imminent population explosion.

      I totally know what you mean about the cat duality thing. Fuzzy companion animal one minute, killing machine the next. Brie is not much of a hunter for obvious reasons, but she pounces hard on her toys and all the claws come out.

      I love nutritional yeast. It doesn’t seem to deter the mosquitoes one bit. Maybe garlic? The weird thing is that mosquitoes used to leave me alone completely. I don’t know what changed in my body chemistry in the past ten years. Maybe going vegetarian was part of it.


      • Posted by EcoCatLady on 05/18/2012 at 14:29

        Hmmm… I have a friend who swears that not eating sugar is the key. Don’t know if it’s true or not, but I’d LOVE to find a solution. My next door neighbor installed a “pond” a number of years ago… which was fine, but then he got bored with it and has let it go to pot… the water no longer circulates and it’s basically just a big mosquito hatchery. If it weren’t for the fact that he has two dogs, I’d be tempted to toss a bunch of deet into it! Sigh.


        • I wonder if you could report him to local disease control? West Nile Virus is a concern out here, and I seem to remember that at one point that we were encouraged to report areas of standing water.

          I think I actually eat quite a bit less sugar than I used to. Biters gonna bite…


  2. Posted by Rosa on 05/18/2012 at 06:31

    I have a no mercy policy in our living space, which I feel is justified (and that includes my vegetable gardens – I routinely trap squirrels & transport them to a hawk-heavy park, sometimes as many as 8 a week, rather than let the squirrels eat my food.) I kill ants and flies on a regular basis and mice when they get into the house.

    That’s why i think humans should limit the spaces we consider “ours”, so we can leave more places to all the other animals. It’s reasonable to defend a certain amount of space so that it’s safest and most convenient for us – it’s not reasonable to make it so every beach, every forest, every prairie is a human-friendly park where you don’t have to watch out for bears or cougars.


    • Hi Rosa,

      I’ve often wondered how possible it is to garden or farm and uphold compassion for animals — the same animals who are busy trying to eat the food you’re growing! A trapped squirrel at a local farm led to my first realization that even eating vegetables has a high cost in animal life.

      I really like your idea about limiting human spaces, but I find it hard to reconcile that with my desire to get out of the city and into somewhere more rural (and, unfortunately, perpetuating suburban sprawl). It’s another one of those things in which the mind leans towards greater good (staying in the city, not promoting sprawl, not paving over more open space), and the heart yearns for wide open spaces and trees. I wonder which will win?


      • Posted by Rosa on 05/18/2012 at 19:36

        It might just mean accepting danger and inconvenience when you go out there. There are dangers in the city, too – just different ones. You know? I don’t really feel the urge to live out in the middle of nowhere, I’ve done it and it’s not really for me, but I like to visit it, and I accept that we have to put up the food because there might be bears. Also I’d be pretty happy if they put a no-cars ban on the roads into the Grand Canyon and made everyone take a shuttle bus with trained drivers, to cut down on the number of bears that get killed. (I really don’t want them around the house, though – if you live in north suburban Minneapolis and you get bears on your back porch, the DNR says “close the curtains and ignore them, they’ll go away.” That would make me feel much more unsafe than the crime/noise levels where I live.)

        Have you read This Organic Life? Joan Gussow has some great stories about talking vegetable gardening with vegan/vegetarian students, trying to convey how sharp the human/other competition is once you put a bunch of yummy fruits and vegetables into a tight space and pour a lot of care and resources in them to make them bigger and yummier.


        • Hi Rosa,

          I haven’t really lived out in the middle of nowhere, but I think I’d have to get used to the bugs. Supposedly mosquito bites become less severe once the body gets used to the proteins in their saliva. For most people, anyway!

          I read Michael Pollan’s gardening book, Second Nature, a while ago and found his determination to get rid of a badger (or was it a groundhog?) in his garden pretty funny. I think, for many of us, our ruthlessness lies just below the surface. I’ll have to check out This Organic Life. Since I have yet to garden seriously, I know I’m in for some rude awakenings and more changes to my understanding of the human/other animals relationship.


  3. I love your post! While I can’t bear the thought of eating a warm-blooded animal, I am fierce when it comes to mosquitoes because I am also prime meat to them and the bites swell for ages.

    Your point about being suburban born and raised without exposure to animals who might harm me brings up a conversation I was lucky to have with a Masaai tribal leader. They are changing their practices away from killing lions as a rite of manhood (he’d killed two with spears as a young man). They are shifting because tourists such as me want to see the cute animals. The reality they face, though, is that these ‘cute’ animals are a grave danger to them and their livestock.

    I love your question about whether it is a luxury for those of us not facing such deadly encounters to be against killing but I have to come to the conclusion that it is about necessary versus unnecessary death. To defend yourself from large and small predators (pesky disease carrying mosquitoes included) is one thing, to kill and consume animals who are not harming you and not necessary to consume for your health another.

    Again, thank you for the great post.


    • Hi Laurel,

      Thanks for your comment. How awesome you were able to have a conversation with a Masai leader! That must have been an eye opener. I think his comment is also relevant to conflicting perspectives about other large (often endangered) animals. We see species in need of conservation; the people who live in close proximity to them see a threat to their livelihood and families. Westerners have the luxury of saying, “Save the tigers!” because there aren’t any in our backyards…I think WWF has gotten better at working with local people to find compromises and solutions, but it’s still a conundrum of sorts.

      I agree that there’s a difference between self-defense and killing for food I can be healthy without. Even as my views on human/animal relationships have changed and become more complex, I don’t intend to go back to eating meat. My brain likes hypotheticals, though, and I have to wonder…would it be wrong for a farmer who traps and kills ground squirrels who are damaging crops to then eat the squirrels?


      • It was a mind shift to talk with Sabore, the tribal leader, because I am particularly fond of the big cats. But that is as someone who doesn’t live with them and I love WWF’s approach to including the local people’s needs into conservation efforts. I also agree about it being better to eat the squirrels than simply kill them. Then the loss of their life is less wasteful.


      • That is brilliant and makes me happy to read about. Well done, Richard!


      • Thank you for sharing that Rosa! I’ll pass that along. I particularly love that he used solar energy and set it up to vary like someone walking around with a light. Brilliant and humane kid.


  4. Jennifer,

    1st– I’m told that those who are irresistible to mosquitoes need to drink more gin. Better get with it. 😉

    2nd — the farmer should definitely eat the squirrels. This is the more earth-conservative use of those already-extinguished calories. Or he can feed them to his dogs/cats.

    3rd– Even those of us who do not follow a vegetarian diet can be compassionate by choosing protein products from humanely “farmed” animals, thereby reducing the number of inhumanely farmed animals necessary to feeding our species. There are even a number of “heirloom” fowl and other species that without their human consumption, would already be extinct because it is these specialty consumers who support the market for the breed. So as you say, it’s complicated.


    • Hi R. K.,

      LOL! Gin, huh? I wonder if it’s the juniper or the alcohol content. I’m not a drinker, but I’d be willing to try it as an aerosol. Not sure when I’ll be back in the tropics, though. I feel guiltier and guiltier every time I fly.

      You’ve persuaded me on the farmer / squirrel thing, although I can’t personally see myself skinning a squirrel and dumping the body into Brie’s food bowl. I lean towards prioritizing ecological sustainability over compassionate ethics, so I also support the eating of invasive species as a calorie replacement for unsustainably farmed animals. Asian carp, anyone? If you’re going to eat meat, you might as well be a part of the solution.

      I haven’t gone down the humane farming path because it still seems like unnecessary bloodshed on my hands, but I think every step towards more conscious, thoughtful eating is a good one. Ultimately, I hope that as a society we’ll end up eating quite a bit less meat that costs more but is also more sustainably and humanely raised. Wouldn’t mind if that also meant the vegetarian options at restaurants were more plentiful and tasted better. 😉


      • I’m all for eating the Asian Carp! And Zebra Mussels! And steamed kudzu! Whatever works! Can’t see me eating the woolly adelgids, though…


        • Mmm, adelgids…I wonder if even the Chinese could find a way to prepare that. (My parents, by the way, think hungry Chinese immigrants singlehandedly fixed the invasive mitten crab population in SF Bay. I’m not sure they’re totally right, but gosh, what a good way to at least control an invasive population.) I hope your hemlocks make it!


  5. Posted by smallftprints on 05/18/2012 at 13:21

    I’m totally compassionate to ALL critters … until they try to eat me! Then it’s survival of the fittest. I don’t kill slugs or worms or mice or spiders or ants, etc. unless they feel a need to sink their “teeth” into me. I’ll share my vegetable garden with them, I’ll gently move them to another space when they want to share my home. But I draw the line at offering up a vein. Compassion has it’s limits. 🙂

    When we lived in Florida, we battled ants all the time. I’d clean the kitchen and the next morning wake to a trail of the little guys going from the window, down the wall, across the floor and up the cabinets. I was VERY careful about any exposed food sources so I was never sure what they were after. Well, once I took a soapy rag and within seconds wiped the entire group away … killed them all. My hubby was watching me and said … “just imagine … they were doing their thing and in one second this shadow came over them and killed them … wiped out a colony like some kind of catastrophic event”. Well, I was stunned … it really bothered me to think that they were just doing what ants do and I slaughtered them for it. Haven’t killed an ant since … but I do use bay leaves and essential oils to repel them.


    • Hi Smallfootprints,

      We had an ant problem in Hawaii, too. Our rental cat had dropped a little of her wet cat food on the floor. I didn’t notice until we returned a few hours later and I stepped squarely in a 4″ pool of teeming black ants. (Luckily they were not the biting type.) I just wanted them OUT. Kevin usually transports insects a few at a time, but there were hundreds. So…I sprayed them all with Windex (all that the cottage had), descended upon them with a paper towel, and threw it all out. I know, I know…it was my fault for not checking for fallen bits of cat food, and my fault again for wiping out so many, but I just didn’t know what else to do.

      I think, at heart, I may be a little bloodthirsty. I killed all those ants and only felt a little bad about it. I once had a conversation with a vegan who was opposed to killing fleas on our companion animals, and realized that maybe compassion wasn’t my most salient trait.


      • “Rental cat”: I love that!
        So tell me: what do you call the cat that comes by your house and gets fed by you and occasionally petted, falls asleep among your bushes and generally behaves like he owns the place – but is emphatically not _your_ cat?


        • Sounds like a moocher cat to me. Our free rental cat was a delightful surprise. She belongs to the people whose property our cottage and their house is on, enjoyed hanging out with us around meal times and stretching out on the bed. It was like home away from home to have a cat underfoot in a small kitchen. Happy to be back with my real kitty, though!


  6. What do you know – I read your post just after coming home from canvassing the neighbourhood to beg my neighbours to get rid of standing water in their yards, and offering mosquito dunks for ponds and rain gutters. We didn’t sit outside for a single meal last year, the Asian tiger mosquitoes were so bad.

    We like to revere nature, but the truth is that nature is not lovely or kind. In fact, it can be quite ferocious. It’s easy to forget that it really is a jungle out there, as we’ve managed to make a spot for ourselves in our life-proof homes, and get our food in aseptic packaging. But we’re just a small part of the big picture, and every creature in it has to look out for number one.

    Me, I admire the cats: they go hunting when they need to – and to keep themselves in practice. Mice, squirrels, other small warm-blooded things. And they look slightly askance at the humans whom they tolerate on their property – just.

    Welcome back, Jennifer!


    • Thanks, CelloMom, and good timing! I hope your efforts pay off.

      It’s tempting to idealize nature, but the more natural history I read, the more I realize that our world has evolved through fierce competition, treachery, and ruthlessness. I still find quite a lot of it beautiful — as long as I get to sit on the sidelines!


    • For all the fierce and ruthless behavior of my previous cat companions, I now have a Buddha cat who just follows bugs around to watch them – hasn’t killed one to my knowledge. We even had a mouse in the house for a week that she followed around before I finally captured him and released him outside.
      For indoor flying bug control, I love spiders as long as they stay up in the corners and don’t try to sit with me…


  7. Next time, you could try applying a drop of tea tree oil on your bite. I won’t go anywhere without my tiny glass bottle of tea tree oil. I was the kind who after being bitten on the foot could not wear shoes for a couple of days.
    I don’t mind animals in the outdoors, even mosquitoes, rattlesnakes (almost got bitten a couple weeks ago), but I want none in my house. I try to prevent them from entering but if they are inside and I cannot safely put them back outside, then I have no pity. I defend my territory.


    • Thanks for the tip, Natalie! I had some tea tree oil with me on my last tropical foray, but I’m not sure how much good it did (I may have waited too long to apply…is there a threshold for this kind of thing?). This trip I had tiger balm, which helped with the itching, but definitely didn’t prevent swelling.

      I think defending your home against unwanted critters — especially the ones that bite — is totally reasonable. Prevention is a good first step, but it’s not always enough.


  8. Posted by San Diego Plumber on 05/20/2012 at 22:41

    We all have our ups and downs with animals. I’d say that I have pets and at the same time, I really hate bugs. Whenever I go to camps, I always bring those repellents and so far so good, I never had any major incident with bug bites. One insect that I’m really terrified of is the hairy caterpillar. I shudder to even think about it.


    • Hi San Diego Plumber,

      I’m OK with insects as long as I’m not on the menu! My friend’s mom raises silk worms in her class every year, and I enjoy watching them grow and listening to the constant munch as they eat their way through piles of leaves. Hairy caterpillars might be a little more intimidating, though. 🙂

      Which repellents have worked well for you? If I venture out of California again this summer, I will probably need a more effective one.


  9. I’m getting a kick out of how all of us animal lovers draw the line at the smallest critters, biting bugs and other creepy crawlies. I have to share a story from my grad school days. I was collecting air samples (think air particles collected by a vacuum cleaner filter) and had to spray in some solvent to stop the microbes from chomping on the samples. A woman who was helping asked if I really had to kill the microbes. Hadn’t really considered that level of kindness before…


  10. Posted by Andrea on 05/22/2012 at 08:05

    I use my cats as natural pest control in my home! If they enjoy playing with their insects before killing them, that’s fine by me!!!

    Growing up, my mom used to catch spiders in a glass and toss them outside, which I think is a pretty decent solution. I’ve never liked them, but I appreciate that they eat bugs. I just prefer it when they live on the other side of the window. 🙂


    • Hi Andrea,

      Hmm…I guess this is one of the drawbacks to having a blind cat! (Unlike Homer, Brie does not leap in the air to catch flies. Too bad.) My first cat occasionally caught and played with insects, and it always made me a little upset to see her toying with one, but she was just being a cat.

      I’m not a big spider fan, either. Kevin escorts them outside. I ignore them, figuring that they are a self-maintaining population. Hawaii and other tropical places have house geckos, which are much, much cuter.


  11. I had to read your post because it’s about mosquitoes! I also have limited compassion for mosquitoes, but they love me. I decided that I need to start wearing long sleeves and pants when going to my garden because that is where I get bitten like crazy. I have tried dabbing lavender essential oil on, but I am still testing this experiment to see if it helps.

    I am stopping by from the Reduce Footprints Monday blog hop!


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