A Creature Was Stirring...

Nov 28, 2017

Credit Library of Congress

One night last week, about 3:30 a.m., I was woken out of a deep sleep by a sound – a sound at once familiar, infuriating, and implacable. I knew instantly what it was, and what I would have to do, and I was already sorry.

The sound was indisputably that of gnawing, a sound made by little sharp teeth, carving out a little nest for itself among the studs and cellulose insulation behind our bedroom wall, a sound somehow amplified by the very structure of the wall itself. I should not have been surprised by the sound; in fact I should have expected it, for after all, this is the time of the year when they start to come inside, drawn by the warmth of our house and the protection it provides. They settle in, living up to both their Latin and English name: Mus domesticus, the house mouse.

Few animals live up to their name as thoroughly as the common house mouse. Though originally wild, it is universally described as living “in or near human structures.” It has literally domesticated itself, as thoroughly as we have domesticated dogs and cats, though in its case, without being invited. And it’s not just that their nocturnal gnawings are annoying. They can pose a real danger to electrical wiring, and mouse droppings can spread disease and pollute indoor air.

I knew what my options were – in fact, they were transgenerational. I remember my father setting out those spring-loaded VICTOR mouse traps, their design unchanged in over a century and still manufactured in the USA by the Woodstream Corporation in Lititz, Pennsylvania. I also remember him putting out small cardboard trays of D-Con rodent poison in the nooks and recesses of our old wood-frame house. Today, those cardboard trays have been replaced by sophisticated plastic “bait stations” designed to keep the poison away from children and pets.

Of course, more tender sensibilities can now buy live mouse traps, and I’ve considered them in the past. But once I caught a live mouse, what would I do with it? I know that if I just let it go outside, it would soon return – it is, after all, a house mouse. I could take it farther from my house, but then I’d just be transferring my problem to someone else.

No, my choice has always been D-Con, which, I admit, is a coward’s choice. D-Con creates an intense thirst in the rodent, which compels it to go outside in search of water. There it dies, efficiently, inexorably, and most importantly, out of sight. But because I wanted quick results, I also put out one of the spring mouse traps, baiting it with a small piece of Swiss cheese.

It was the mouse trap that did the trick. The next morning I found the little creature in the trap, its neck snapped. It seemed to have a look of frozen surprise on its face. No longer my antagonist, I contemplated it with curiosity and even empathy: its large, black, shiny B-B eyes, its small pointed snout, its delicate, glistening silver whiskers, tiny translucent ears, and long, pink, hairless tail. It was, in every respect, Bobby Burns’ “wee, sleekit, cow’rin’ tim’rous beastie”, and I realized that if I had actually seen it first, watched it negotiate its universe of omnipresent danger with nothing but fertility and concealment in its arsenal of survival, I might not have been able to do what I had done. So we all, mice and men, bargain our way through mortal choices, all in quest of a secure and undisturbed home.