One Mouse That Roared

Photo by: Kerry Riley, 2008

or… a short tale of woe, in which one self-proclaimed pacifist animal lover learns of the pitfalls lurking within the implementation of a “live and let live” philosophy, on even the smallest scale.

by: Kerry Riley

In this, the season of peace and goodwill, when the lion, reputedly, lies down with the lamb, my thoughts are naturally drawn, once again, to that thorny philosophical question: just how much abuse must a self-declared animal lover endure at the hands of one of God’s creatures before she can retaliate in self-defense, and still consider herself a friend of nature?

This is the sort of story in which positions must be established right up front, stands taken, the cards laid on the table.  And so I herein declare myself an unapologetic, died-in-the-wool, bleeding-heart, head-over-heels, great and goofy animal lover. Completely irredeemable. The cuter and furrier, the better. (A result, no doubt, of an overdose of Disney in my formative years, but back then, who knew?)

As a child, I embraced an elaborate anthropomorphism which extended to the inanimate world and included a large personal responsibility. It was an ambitious, if unwieldy bit of metaphysics. I have had to get over, for example, the idea that the unchosen Christmas trees suffer from rejection and that it was my duty to reduce the pain in the world by selecting the rattiest one. I still suffer some residual guilt, however, about the various cars I have, over time, abandoned to desolate scrap yard existences.  All this to concede that my adult “live and let live” ideology may not have sprung from entirely rational origins, and further, that I am an imperfect practitioner of my own faith. I freely admit that my weekly meat counter purchases involve intricate acts of denial, and my pacifist tendencies end, with a big squish, at earwigs. I am, in short, in no position to lecture. Nevertheless, from the moment I had any say in the matter at all, I determined that no animal (with the before-said exception of earwigs) would, if I could help it, come to grief within my circle of influence. And, at what I now understand to be the tender age of forty, with a few unintentional and deeply regretted exceptions, I believed myself to have been a true and consistent adherent to this ideal.

Enter Mus musculus. The house mouse. It took a move to the country and my first in-depth encounter with this bug-eyed little charmer for me to begin to understand that I had, until then, been practising my philosophy on a mostly theoretical level and that any attempt to apply philosophy to real life can complicate one’s existence exponentially, in an astonishingly short period of time.

I can’t recall, precisely, when the comprehension dawned that the mouse population in my new house had gotten out of hand. The only initial evidence that I was not alone came, usually late at night, from the occasional, gentle plink of a sunflower seed shell as it hit the marble hearth at the bottom of a high stone wall in the livingroom. I found this charming. I imagined small, whiskered faces peering down in consternation, assessing the seriousness of their misstep. What depths of hygienic insecurity, I wondered, led some individuals to proclaim, loudly and to anyone who would listen, their inability to tolerate a mouse. “Fear not, little mice” I thought, “for I am a kind-hearted person.”

My arteries hardened somewhat, however, upon discovering, later that fall, that my house guests had, it seemed, invited the entire mouse population of Essonville to winter chez moi – and, perhaps more objectionably, that the elimination habits of Mus musculus were insufficiently organized to even qualify as habit. Mice, I feel qualified to inform you, eliminate with a gleeful abandon unrivaled elsewhere in the animal world. Anything more restrictive than random defecation is, apparently, a concept foreign to the mouse mind. (No wonder cats, with their own fastidious toilette, find them so despicable.) Suddenly, not to put too fine a point on it, there was mouse poop everywhere.

Bleach spray bottle in hand, I began the counter-offensive. Eventually I had to admit that mice could poop faster than I could clean. Still basically secure in my pro-mouse beliefs, I procured a live-trap and proceeded with an elaborate and, what I can now see was an overly self-righteous “mouse relocation project” which included – and it takes a strong person to admit this – small refugee packages consisting of a cache of peanuts, an assortment of suitable nesting material, and a one-way ticket to the barn. It was, after all, the dead of winter.

No matter how many deportees I processed however, the mouse population never seemed to dwindle. My faith in this method received a further serious blow one evening when I realized the mouse I was about to release to the barn was, in fact, the same mouse I had released there the previous evening – easily identified by an odd white mark on its face. I began to suspect the little blighters were actually beating me back to the house.

A crisis of faith ensued. What to do? Spray bottle perpetually in hand, an evil thought took shape in my mind. Termination. Then, rationalization, that wellspring of all human adaptability, set in. It was, after all, a quick, painless, death. Could I hope for as much? It was the kindest thing, really. Life, for elderly mice, was, surely, no bowl of cherries. I baited my first death trap.

Of course it didn’t go well. After a short period of eerie calm, what did my wondering ears hear, but a frantic clatter emanating from the vicinity of the fruit cellar – a known Mus musculus hot spot. Eerie calm re-descended. Well, I thought, with shaky irritation, that hardly represented the instantaneous, painless death, promised by the trap’s manufacturer, but the objective had, at least, been achieved. Steeling myself to deal with the remains, my resolve evaporated with the commencement of a piteous peeping followed by another interval of hideous clatter and a Tiny Tim-like sound of dragging. Eschewing the selfish comfort of squeamishness, I determined that the only honourable route left to me was to deal as quickly and efficiently as possible with whatever horror I had wrought.

Flinging the door to the fruit cellar open, the scene which presented itself somewhat exceeded my worst imaginings. The mouse, a once exquisite creature, had been caught by its hind leg – in its panicked attempts to shake off its captor, it had battered itself with its own trap – the leg was broken, an eye lost. There was a surprising amount of blood — everywhere. The trap had become lodged against the leg of a storage shelf, and although the mouse was still making valiant attempts to drag itself away, no progress was made. I killed it with a broom. Why oh why, can’t mice look more like earwigs? My mind/body interface toyed with the possibility of vomiting, then crying, but in the end, what emerged was hugely frustrated anger. “This is not who I am,” I shouted into the void, stamping a mouse-murdering foot.

Out, once again, came the live trap — and the spray bottle. Blood-stained and guilt-driven, I redoubled my relocation efforts, adding a chunk of aged cheddar to the package, as further inducement for the deportees to remain deported. And, as winter wore away into spring, I began to feel that my efforts were paying off. Eventually, I was able to shelve the live trap entirely, unaware that the dwindling mouse problem was more a seasonal phenomenon than the result of my efforts, heroic though they may have been.

Fast forward to early fall. I had been noticing for some time, on trips to the basement, a distinctly unpleasant odour near a shelving unit which, however, resisted all attempts at discovery. Eventually it dissipated, only to return occasionally, always defying detection. One fateful day, at precisely  the point where the smell had been, I heard a sound. A grating, teeth-on-tinfoil sort of sound, coming from the long-ago-shelved live mouse trap. I forced myself to lift the lid. The scene which presented itself vastly exceeded my worst imaginings. Huddled amidst the mummified remains of several of his less fortunate compatriots, like the last survivor of some long ago polar mission gone horribly wrong, was a small, exhausted looking mouse. Even his ears seemed to droop. Live traps, it seems, carry certain time constraints. It had never occurred to me that a retired live trap might continue to capture mice. I released him in the barn with hopelessly inadequate apologies and, it goes without saying, a survival kit the size of Milwaukee.

Fall unfolded; the mice moved back in. Undone, once again, by their unbounded defecatory enthusiasm, I was forced to re-examine the extermination issue. At my wits’ end, it seemed that a few messy deaths were probably preferable to any re-creation of the nihilistic horror I had unwittingly wrought with the live trap. There were no happy endings here, just bad or worse. I purchased “new and improved” killer mouse traps, but I didn’t feel good about it. To be fair, several quick and clean executions ensued, before my mysterious fate, to be the scourge of all mouse-kind, re-asserted itself in the form of the tiniest, most winsomely Disney-esque mouse I had yet to encounter. We met, late at night, in the fruit cellar, when I entered in the midst of some household chore, after a weekend away. There, a diminutive hind foot pinioned in a trap, he sat. As our eyes met, something left his face. I think it was hope. Only a sleepy-eyed resignation remained — actually advanced dehydration, which can be easily confused with sleepy-eyed resignation. No doubt he had been pinned there for the entire weekend. He shifted his eyes in an expression which clearly said, “Just get it over with.”
Perhaps it was the otherworldly mood peculiar to late night fruit cellars, or the subterranean workings of suppressed mouse-murder memories, but I was overcome, at that moment, by the conviction that something important lay in the balance here — that the death of this mouse, in this manner, because of me, would cross some unacceptable line, would tip some subtle balance, would just be going too darned far.

….. after several semi-forced feedings of sugar water, “Roger,” as I dubbed him, was looking considerably perkier, ensconced in a pillow of fluffed Kleenex, his little stump bathed in antibiotic ointment. Perky enough to survey with some interest, the array of tasties assembled for his consideration — settling, finally, on a nibble of Gorgonzola and a walnut. Fifty nine dollars and thirty seven cents later, and Roger, my three-legged “mouse of redemption” was housed in a suitably palatial style – nothing short of the “ultra” small rodent enviro-habitat, loaded with options, in a stylish cherry red. The exercise wheel, I realized, too late, was a clumsy miscalculation.

For the better part of three weeks, Roger basked in the reflected glow of my regret, our relationship a tiny island of detente in the never-ending mouse:house-owner wars. Fresh produce was procured to tempt his increasingly discriminating palate, the “habitat” shunted about the house, so that he might take the sunshine.

Its hard to say at precisely what point the saviour/saved relationship alters from one of devotion to something less exalted, but I do remember, sometime in the third week of Roger’s convalescence, feeling, as I watched him recline daintily on a sunny cotton puff, surveying a freshly peeled grape with an air of weary hauteur, that he had grown rather plump and self-satisfied … perhaps even calculating. “This is a long way from my original plans for you,” I found myself thinking, uncharitably. I began to wonder just how long mice lived.

In Roger’s case, I never got to find out because, in a typically quixotic move, he chose to escape from his earthly paradise one night when the habitat hatch was inadvertently left open and was never seen again. It might have been something I said.

I sincerely wish I had a tidy ending for this story – some nugget of wisdom to offer tender-hearted souls crushed between the opposing forces of necessity and inclination, but the truth is, I myself have been unable to craft a resolution to the dilemma which holds up under scrutiny.

In my house, seasonal warfare continues to be waged, with a sort of built-in Geneva convention which dictates that while one may kill a mouse outright, if they are only somewhat damaged no stone must be left unturned in the rehabilitation effort which, if successful, allows relocation to the barn, from which they are free to attempt to re-infiltrate the house so we can do it all over again. On a clear day, the inconsistencies in this approach leave me breathless.

I continue to be haunted by the memories of the mouse-mummies, the cruel irony of their death in my “live trap,” and by the slowly dawning realization that when I tossed that trap, in a fit of disgust, into the garbage, I did not, in fact, remove the lid, and that it is most likely sitting in a dump somewhere, filled with dead mice, accruing demerit points against my immortal soul. If there are, indeed, pearly gates, I fully expect to be met there by a throng of black-cowled shades, their faces a mousey version of Munch’s “Scream,” demanding reparation. And some saintly accountant, with a “seen it all before” shake of the head, will strike forever the appellation “animal lover,” from my resume.

In the end, I can offer only a warning. Some ideas exist most comfortably in a theoretical realm – beyond that, there be dragons!

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