I have been writing a book about vermin, pests, and parasites, and the surprising virtues of vile creatures. As part of my research for this project, I’ve been devouring essays and stories and poems about pigeons, rats, worms, even cockroaches. I keep making my friends listen to quotes from the philosopher Michel Serres, who says, “[H]istory hides the fact that man is the universal parasite, that everything and everyone around him is a hospitable space.” And Donna Haraway, who says, “I love the fact that human genomes can be found in only about 10 percent of all the cells that occupy the mundane space I call my body; the other 90 percent of the cells are filled with the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists, and such.” We’re all parasites, man, I tell myself with satisfaction. And: what even is a body but an ecosystem? It’s entanglements all the way down!
And then I get a call from the veterinarian. My dog Ellie Mae has tested positive for heartworms. My sweet dog, with dappled fur and gentle eyes and a burrito-shaped body, has been carrying a silent infection. My good girl, who loves chasing squirrels and swimming in the ocean, will have to go through a months-long treatment protocol that prohibits exercise.
Who’s to blame? Maybe it’s me—maybe I forgot to give Ellie Mae her pill one month, leaving her vulnerable. Or maybe it’s her previous owners, since I’ve had her for only a year. It’s certainly some mosquito that bit her. Mosquitoes transmit heartworms, and areas with a lot of mosquitoes, like our city in Florida, are heartworm hotbeds. I’m trying to convince myself she had already been bitten when I adopted her, because I can’t stand the little voice that says I’ve failed this creature I am bound to care for.
So now we have a mission: kill the heartworms without killing the dog. It’s even more complicated than that, though, because heartworms live in symbiosis with a bacterium called Wolbachia pipienti. So first Ellie Mae has to undergo an antibiotic treatment, which will kill the Wolbachia, along with probably a host of other good bacteria. This will weaken the heartworms, making them easier to eliminate with the next round of drugs.
Ellie Mae’s infection and treatment are caught up in larger ecological stories. One is the story of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Each time we use antibiotics, we are staging a natural selection scenario. Any microbe with a drug resistance mutation can survive and propagate itself in the empty space left by its weaker relatives. Each year, 23,000 people die of an antibiotic-resistant infection in the US alone. How much longer will doxycycline work against Wolbachia? Is each course of antibiotics we use a debt drawn on the future?
And then there’s the story of mosquitoes, who love hot, wet weather. As climate change accelerates and we get more warm days, mosquitoes get more active too. And that means more transmission of heartworms in dogs, as well as viruses like Zika, dengue fever, and West Nile in humans. With every ton of carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere, we make the planet more hospitable for mosquitoes, and less hospitable for people and pets.
Climate change implicates me and Ellie Mae too. I haven’t eaten red meat or poultry in many years, but she’s an omnivore. I buy her kibble with meat in it because I’ve chosen her, over all the other thousands of animals, to care for. And meat, in particular the beef industry, is a major contributor to greenhouse gases. So even my innocent dog is not innocent.
Mosquitoes are like vampires, sucking and sullying our blood in unholy ways. And vampire stories are really stories about contagion. Ecology is a horror movie. I write essays and books about multispecies communities and symbiotic relationships, and then the dark unconscious of nature erupts like a jump scare to remind me of what I’ve repressed.
Ecological philosopher Timothy Morton put it best: “Everything is connected. And it sucks.”