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Animals as Neighbors

The Past and Present of Commensal Animals

Terry O'Connor

Publication Year: 2014

In this fascinating book, Terry O’Connor explores a distinction that is deeply ingrained in much of the language that we use in zoology, human-animal studies, and archaeology—the difference between wild and domestic. For thousands of years, humans have categorized animals in simple terms, often according to the degree of control that we have over them, and have tended to see the long story of human-animal relations as one of increasing control and management for human benefit. And yet, around the world, species have adapted to our homes, our towns, and our artificial landscapes, finding ways to gain benefit from our activities and so becoming an important part of our everyday lives. These commensal animals remind us that other species are not passive elements in the world around us but intelligent and adaptable creatures. Animals as Neighbors shows how a blend of adaptation and opportunism has enabled many species to benefit from our often destructive footprint on the world. O’Connor investigates the history of this relationship, working back through archaeological records. By requiring us to take a multifaceted view of human-animal relations, commensal animals encourage a more nuanced understanding of those relations, both today and throughout the prehistory of our species.

Published by: Michigan State University Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. iii-iv


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p. vii-vii

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pp. ix-x

Among my strongest childhood memories are times spent on a seaside promenade, throwing pieces of stale bread into the air to be caught by swooping, squabbling gulls. Birds that could be seen at other times soaring over the waves or poking about in rock pools would come to within a few feet to aerobatically snatch scraps of food, temporarily leaving their “wild” world to engage with ours. To a child, there is something quite special about ...

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pp. 1-12

It hardly needs saying that animals are central to our individual and collective lives. As utilized livestock, they feed us and provide other resources such as wool and leather. In arid lands, they convert the poor vegetation of rangelands into animal protein, enabling some living to be made in otherwise unproductive places. In less-industrialized economies animals provide power, hauling carts and plows, again making agriculture possible. In ...

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Chapter 1 - The Human Environment

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pp. 13-24

To speak of the “human environment” may seem redundant. There are few terrestrial environments where some human influence or modification cannot be discerned. We are making small but significant changes to the composition of the atmosphere, major changes to the ecology of all but the deepest oceans, and we have radically altered the composition and distribution of plant and animal communities all across the Earth’s land ...

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Chapter 2 - Sources of Evidence

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pp. 25-36

Up to this point, we have considered commensalism rather in theory or principle, as a life strategy adopted by some species. Another way of approaching the topic is to ask how we recognize commensalism: how do we decide that the term applies to this or that population of animals, either today or in the past? This may seem self-evident, but we shall see that there are many often subtly different ways of using human living space for food and ...

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Chapter 3 - The Archaeology of Commensalism

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pp. 37-56

One of the most intriguing questions regarding our species and our animal neighbors is to wonder how far back into our prehistory such associations extend. To some extent we can address that question through the historical and archaeological records, looking for direct and indirect evidence that may show commensal relationships. Digging into that rich and diverse record to examine the material evidence for a number of different times ...

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Chapter 4 - Mesomammals

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pp. 57-80

Having looked at commensalism as a life strategy, and having considered its possible time depth, we turn to some of the species involved. We need to consider what we know of the present-day ecology and ethology of those species: what is it about their behavior and way of living that has made them successful commensals? For some, their association with ...

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Chapter 5 - Rats, Mice, and Other Rodents

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pp. 81-100

Explain “commensal animals” to many people and their first response is “Oh, like rats and mice?” These species are all too familiar to urbanized Western societies, but perhaps their familiarity leads us to neglect and underrate them. The association of rodents with people goes back over the millennia, extends all over the world, and includes species other than the familiar house mouse and common rat. Rats and mice are biologically ...

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Chapter 6 - Birds

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pp. 101-116

Although rats and mice may be among the most abundant of our commensal neighbors, their furtive nature and often nocturnal habits make them less visible. That in turn allows us to forget that they are constantly with us, and to treat the profession of pest controller with a combination of distaste and willful ignorance. Anthropologists speak of the process of “othering” certain groups; pest controllers, like others who deal with the less attractive ...

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Chapter 7 - Commensalism, Coevolution, and Culture

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pp. 117-128

Previous chapters have sought to explore the time depth of commensalism, and have looked at some of the many species that have adapted to our living space. Now we draw together and consider some of the themes that have emerged from this survey, to discuss commensalism as a strategy, to consider our responses to it, and to think about the future options for ourselves and our ...

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Chapter 8 - Planning for the Future

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pp. 129-134

Although this book is concerned with the past and present of commensal animals, the present is only a very thin interface between past and future, so what of the future? The long story of our animal neighbors makes it clear that some will cope with whatever changes we make to our world. As with so much in animal conservation, the question is not so much whether we want a commensal fauna as what sort of commensal fauna do we ...


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pp. 135-148


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pp. 149-170


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pp. 171-174

E-ISBN-13: 9781609173876
E-ISBN-10: 1609173872
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611860986
Print-ISBN-10: 1611860989

Page Count: 234
Illustrations: 76
Publication Year: 2014

Edition: 1st