There has been a recent flurry of sensationalist warnings about the threat of exotic species. Zealous cadres of conservation biologists descend on wetlands to rip foreign weeds from the bog, declaring that “a rapidly spreading invasion of exotic plants and animals is destroying our nation’s biological diversity.” It’s amazing how a word that was so good, as in “exotic paradise” and “exotic pleasure” is now used to describe an alleged biological Holocaust.
I was inspired to write about exotic species when I heard a news story from Washington D.C. in the spring of 1999. The citizens of the Capitol were distressed to find that a family of beavers had taken up residence there and were busy felling the Japanese cherry trees that adorned the banks of the Potomac River. It became a national emergency of sorts and a great effort was made to trap every last beaver; only then were the townspeople put at ease. There was no mention made of the fact that the beaver is a native North American species whereas the cherry trees are exotics, imported from Japan. Yet there was no question which species the public favored.
In fact, the reason we dislike certain species and like others has nothing to do with whether or not they are exotic. By playing on people’s natural suspicion of all things foreign, environmentalists confuse the issue and give the public a misleading picture. There are actually thousands of exotic species that are not only beneficial, they are the mainstays of our daily lives. Food crops like wheat, rice, and cabbage are all exotics when grown in North America. Vegetables that originated in the Americas such as beans, corn and potatoes are exotics when they are grown in Europe. All around the world, agriculture is largely based on species that originated somewhere else. This is also the case for domestic animals, garden plants and street trees.