Saturday, February 11, 2012


Mice are on my mind, because they have been on my counters.

I am not alone in feeling that I am in a battle to the death with these small gray denizens of the night, but I prefer if the death go on outside my view. Therefore, I employ traps that allow me to "humanely" catch and release them. I am under no illusions as to what happens to them after I do: mice reproduce at an astonishing rate (in seven months, a happily wed couple may be responsible for bringing over two thousand little beings into this world) because they have to, living at the bottom of the food chain as they do, and being relatively fragile in relation to the giant species that surround them. Still, I'd like to give them a chance. A chance to live elsewhere. Not here.

They have a fine nose for the ideal meal. The unripe bananas go untouched. When they reach the perfect state of yellow, however, gently flecked with brown, then they are ready, and I am likely to find a repulsive mess of scored and gouged fruit, surrounded by the post-digestion effects of that meal.

So I lose some bananas. And bait more traps. But it is what is in the garage that is a more threatening meal, or rather, chewable nesting material: the wires of my vehicles. Every winter the motorcycle forums are filled with long threads about how to repel mice from the airbox, which seems to be a favorite spot to nest (and who can blame them? A dark and quiet hotel room, just perfect for Valentine's Day trysts!). That nest is likely to be softly lined with the shreds of former electrical components. Nothing you want to discover on the first warm day of spring.

After festooning moth balls, tied stylishly in plus-size stockings procured from the dollar store, throughout the engines for the past couple of years, this year I tried something new, just for the sake of it: dryer sheets. Not the Free & Clear kind, either: the toxically perfumed ones. I don't know how anyone can use these on their clothes, in the house, without asphyxiating. Surely, then, these would do the repellent trick!

Stuffed in every crevice and opening, they make motorcycles look like they're fresh from the French cleaners, hung on paper-covered wire hangers and enlivened with tissue paper wads to prevent wrinkling. I even added them to the new Honda generator, because I would have to take the bus all the way to New York City to find a tall building from which to throw myself if this absurdly expensive addition to the garage were ruined after only two runnings. However, the protective stuffing takes some getting used to, as I discovered the first night I was called upon to fire it up. It was four a.m. in the middle of a windy, icy rain storm. After putting my boots on, grabbing a flashlight, and donning the ski jacket to run outside, drag the generator to the front of the garage (not easy, as it is a hefty devil), then race back down to the basement and six inches of water to punch out the window, run the extension cord from the garage, and plug in the pump, I was running with adrenaline myself. At five, back in bed once more, I wondered how I was ever going to get to sleep again. A half hour later, I had willed myself into a state of calm, doing some slow breathing exercises and starting to count sheep--or mice. Oh, jeez! The dryer sheets! Back I went, out into the whirling black cold.

The next time, though, the dryer sheets were the first thing I remembered. You can be sure.

When I was a girl, my friend Laura and I kept mice as pets. One was called Trubloff, as in "The Mouse Who Wanted to Play the Balalaika." (Her family also had a calico cat named Mnlop, as in the contiguous letters of the alphabet, and pronounced Menelope, which to me always sounded like one of the missing Muses.) The thing was, these mice kept eating their babies. This was rather disturbing to two little kids. What we didn't know then, but I do now, is that this was the result of living in captivity. It was a very nice glass cage, mind you, but it was still a cage. Later I came to realize that access to the social and physical systems in which a species evolved is a birthright. Rights can never be conferred. They can only be taken away. And that is what has been done to every gerbil, hamster, rabbit, songbird, or human who is put in a cage, whether it is made of iron bars, tyranny, or wire from a pet shop.

I wake up sometimes at night, wondering what defenses I, a claustrophobe, could muster against solitary confinement in a small cell. The panic uprising. None, I decide. I would eat my young.

An animal rights group has recently brought suit against Sea World, on the grounds that their orcas are subject to slavery. The verdict may be arrived at quite simply: open the pools to the wide sea. If the killer whales swim out into the dancing waters of freedom, we have the answer.

The other morning, there was a mouse in the trap, trying to hide itself in the corner. I knew I would not be able to leave the house and drive it away to release--at least three miles away and preferably on the other side of a body of wate-- until later in the afternoon. I pulled from the cabinet a tiny cup I had bought at Ikea some time ago for its lovely mustard color and amusing bowl shape. I had never found a use for it, but now I saw that it was a water bowl for mice. I gingerly opened the lid to put it in, knowing that I might risk a gray flash and the loss of the mouse, forever, to the land under the stove. Mice, like all of us, are powerful learners. Give them liberty, or give them death. Every time I open the door of their cell, I sincerely hope it is, for them, not both.


Anonymous said...


I love aquariums but hate seeing marine mammals in captivity.That is so wrong. I do hope they let the killer whales decide if they will stay. Sounds perfect for a Speilberg movie starring Drew Barrymore.

Last August on Stellwagen bank I got lucky and saw dozens of humpbacks surfacing together creating huge bubble nets, oblivious to the tourist boats idling around them. I looked down and the water was solid with small fish. I will never forget it.

A few years ago we had squirrels invade the attic and used a "Have a Heart" trap. After catching about half a dozen eerily similar squirrels and dropping them off at a wood at least three miles away I decided to put a drop of orange paint on the a squirrel's tail. He was back the next day in the trap, laughing at me, unaware that he had been busted. I took him across the river to a park in Poughkeepsie and he never returned.

Obviously mice have a much smaller range than humpbacks, or even squirrels. I have released mice as close as 150 yards away. I also have the feeling that fate is not kind to a mouse alone so far from home. But, like you wrote, at least they do have some hope.


Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

The squirrel you released in Poughkeepsie is now living in communal housing on the Vassar campus.


My son has a friend who just was given an African hedgehog as a pet. Oy vey.

The saddest thing I ever saw, and I've seen some things that break my heart believe me, was at a circus. "See the world's largest rat!" it proclaimed. After paying a dollar and mounting the steps, I looked down into a box upon a lone capybara, far far from home.

Kent said...


I also had pet mice, white ones named "Romeo" and

..."Jules!" We had thought it was a female, but we were wrong (examining mice genitalia is a fine art indeed).

Jules eventually became ill and went away (my parents took him to the mouse hospital, I was told) and was replaced with "Abigail", who definitely had the right stuff for Romeo! The pet store eventually told us that they couldn't keep taking any more baby mice from us!

I can't remember how this all ended, except that Romeo did live to be three years old, well beyond the average life expectancy for a mouse. I still have a soft spot for the little critters...

Shybiker said...

I applaud your companion. Even mice are sentient beings who don't deserve unnecessary pain or death.

I can't kill a bug: I'm compelled to trap 'em and release them into the wild. Not because of a theology but just out of respect for other living beings.

I wish more people were like you. :)

Shybiker said...

Oops... meant to type "compassion". I should never comment before coffee. :)

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Shybiker: Do you believe in karma? If not literal karma, then practical karma?

I suspect you do. At any rate, you are practicing it, and practicing makes perfect!

What I have imagined is what life would be like for us if there were a race of 18-foot animals who couldn't understand our language, and who viewed us as vermin. I imagine us crying out, "No! I have a son in Little League, and a wife who adores me! Please don't drown me in a bucket!" as they proceeded to hear only squeaks. "There. Another vermin gone," they think.

How many times I had a spider spilling from hand to hand, as I rushed to the door, hoping he wouldn't fall before I got outside. It's bad luck to kill spiders--because it's bad luck to be cruel.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Kent, you too? Ha-ha.

It's funny. I'll sort of scream and leap on a chair if a mouse runs across the floor. But if they're in their little plastic cube, I can raise it up, and look into their big black eyes (the better to see you with in the dark, my dear) and feel an odd kinship. Perhaps born of those days together when young.

Pierre Sim said...

Hi Melissa,
I used to work for the Correctional Service of Canada for seven years, until I retired in 2004. At that time, we had 52 federal prisons across Canada. I must have spent, in total, around fifteen hours of incarceration during my visits in various institutions. I was the Editor-in-Chief of Let's Talk, the corporate magazine for staff. Well, I was almost choking every time I visited a prison. Being behind bars is as bad as being a mouse trapped in a confined space, where ever it is. This is why some animals and some humans would rather die than stay locked in their traps.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Fascinating, Pierre. And your last line reminds me of another thing: imprisonment is so horrible that if an animal can't escape physically, it often does so mentally. We go insane.

Please don't get me started on zoos (though I already have been a long time ago, and won't ever really stop). The stereotypies of endless pacing or swimming in circles, the self-mutilation by licking or pulling out hair (like teenage girls imprisoned in their own unhappiness, come to think of it) are emblematic of attempts to cope. It's bizarre to me that we permit either animals who have committed no crime, or people whose crimes were victimless. In fact, it's criminal that we do.