Do we have ethical obligations to all the beings we cohabitate with on this planet―or only some of them? Is it okay to kill ones who have the potential to harm you? That’s a messy question, isn’t it?
In the Northeast, where I live, most people’s circle of compassion rarely includes ticks, who are held responsible for one thing―causing disease. Accordingly, each year as the weather warms, plentiful advertisements appear promoting “Tick Free Yards!” My ethical fatigue invariably follows as I contemplate the ethics of spraying insecticides to kill fellow members of the animal kingdom. (While many people might not consider ticks to be animals, a quick look at a taxonomic chart proves they are classified as such.)
Unquestionably, our interactions with some beings require us to balance concern for our health—and often that of our companion animals—with theirs. Yet, resorting to mass killings of a species as an answer to mitigating risk raises both practical and ethical difficulties for those of us who prize ahimsa
(nonviolence) as a spiritual principle.
Is It the Tick’s Fault?
Some ticks carry a bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi, responsible for Lyme disease, which is a multi-system infection that about half a million people in the U.S. contract each year. Early symptoms include the tell-tale red circular bull’s-eye rash around the bite. (I take a bit of offense at that term which, according to some etymologists, harkens back to shooting bull skulls. But I digress.)
Curiously, the disease can manifest differently in people. When I contracted it, my biggest complaints were brain fog and immense fatigue. Ten minutes after having a two-hour nap, I was exhausted again. I could barely keep my eyes open. Yet, a friend of mine had no fatigue and instead complained she felt like she was being beaten from the inside out with baseball bats. This disparity is one of the reasons Lyme is so hard to diagnose (plus testing is less than perfect.) Beyond Lyme, some ticks carry other pathogens that can be problematic for humans.
To add complexity, it isn’t the tick that technically causes Lyme disease. Nor do mice or deer cause it, as is also commonly believed. Instead, the blame lies with the bacterium some―but not all―of them carry. Admittedly, to people infected and struggling with Lyme, I’m perhaps needlessly (and offensively) splitting hairs here. But, I think it is important to note that misunderstandings about who causes Lyme have resulted in killings of entire deer communities, which is not an effective solution to curbing the disease and can make matters worse.
Even if one’s ethics do allow for the use of insecticides, we must admit it is impossible to spray everywhere one goes. Thus, we might all consider getting a little more proficient at avoiding human-tick conflicts.
Helpful Tips for Outsmarting Ticks
- Wear protective clothing covering your skin when you are outside around tall grass, brush, or other wild areas. Start with long-sleeved shirts (that can provide some sun protection as a bonus). Add lightweight pants and tuck those into your socks or boots. Enclosed shoes are better than sandals.
- Choose solid, light-colored fabrics on which you are more likely to see a dark-colored tick.
- Consider tying your hair back or stuffing it up in a hat.
- Use a repellant. Try spraying a natural one on your clothing, such as 5 percent oregano or spearmint oil, which is roughly equivalent to 20 percent DEET. Another common repellant is witch hazel. If you do opt for a chemical repellant, make sure to research it with this easy tool from the EPA.
- Walk on the center of hiking trails rather than the edges.
- Consider your own biology. Some studies suggest that your blood type may make you more susceptible to tick bites.
- Check yourself frequently for ticks, especially after stopping for a time, surveying yourself from the feet up. (Ticks generally travel upward and, contrary to popular belief, do not fly or jump.)
- Shower immediately after wandering outside, taking a close look behind your knees, in your underarms, navel, and groin, as well as on your backside. (A mirror can be very helpful!)
- Never crush a tick with your fingers. Always remove them wearing gloves and according to the CDC guidelines. Next, wash the area with alcohol. It’s believed that ticks need to be attached for about 24 hours to transmit the bacteria, so removing them from your skin quickly, carefully, and thoroughly is essential to reducing the potential for disease.
Special Considerations for Your Animal Companions
- Create non-toxic tick repellant sprays for your dog. Use a spray bottle with a diluted essential oil such as tumeric, rose geranium, lavender, citronella, eucalyptus, or lemongrass. Make sure to check with your vet on which oil might be most effective for your pooch and to avoid any allergy considerations. In general, avoid using essential oils on cats as they can be toxic to cats.
- Check dogs and cats anytime they enter your home after romping in the out-of-doors. Run your fingers through their fur against the direction it normally lays. Investigate any bumps or small black spots on their skin. Pay special attention to in and around the ears and eyes, between their toes, on the underside of their legs, and under a collar.
A Spiritual Practice for Human-Tick Conflicts
If you find a tick and end up as the animal’s executioner, consider offering the tick an apology and blessing.
Pardon my violence, little one, if you can. I recognize that all life is interconnected, and sometimes conflicts arise, like today. This is not an excuse for your death but an acknowledgment of my choice. I will use this moment as a reminder to seek to prevent your kind from attaching to me so that I am not in this position again. I hope you have a most auspicious next lifetime.
Although these words won’t prevent death, witnessing losses
can bring attention to the challenges of interspecies living. Further, it can remind us that all lives on this earth likely have value for those living them.
Ticks Are the Center of Their Own Lives
Ticks played a prominent role in German biologist Jakob von Uexküll’s early-20th-century thinking on the perception of nonhuman beings. At the time, many people suggested all animals were mechanistic creatures driven merely by biological cause and effect. Yet, in A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men, von Uexküll took a different approach, recounting in great detail what the lives of various animals, including ticks, might be like in their own sensory worlds. “Each individual [is] a subject, living in a world of its own, of which it is the center,” he asserted. “It cannot, therefore, be compared to a machine.”
Although von Uexküll’s work is over a century old, it remains influential. His reflections led to further scholarship arguing that animals were subjects of their own lives; they weren’t mere objects for human use and to which we had no moral obligations.
Now, I realize some of you readers might think I’ve gone a bit too far contemplating the lives of ticks. Yet, consider this fact: Insects account for over 90 percent of animal life on earth. So, maybe we ought to consider their perspective a bit more than we usually do.
Want more creative ideas for dealing conscientiously with pests? Read “A Spiritual Approach to Pest Management.”