There are a lot of animals in the mountains . . .The ones you think of, naturally, are coyotes, mountain lions, bears, elk, deer—the larger animals. And when you're reminded, you acknowledge the ground squirrels, voles and mice.
The family dog knows about the small ones. Jake, for example, spends a lot of his days chasing them, occasionally cornering a ground squirrel. Jake's a country dog, and he knows what to do with the critters he catches. Sometimes he's not too fastidious about disposing of the remains. Birds usually take care of that job. Jake and the rest of them are part of the ecology.
Even with the predators like Jake and the owls and other birds and coyotes roaming around looking for a quick meal, there seem to be a lot of mice that find their ways into the house, garage and barn. Someone said the average life span of a mouse in the wild is about two or three months. In that time, they manage to reproduce themselves many times over.
When I was visiting my daughter Cynthia at her home in the mountains near Estes Park, Colorado, she had just finished a biological research project in which she live-trapped a large number of mice looking for a certain endangered species. Knowing that there were mice on her own property, she borrowed a number of the traps used in the project. The first night, she caught about seventeen in her basement and garage. The next morning, she took the creatures down the mountain road about a mile and released them. (Her research associate, a mouse expert, told her that the usual range of individual mice is only about fifty meters.) In the next two nights, she caught another nine mice.
After releasing the last catch, she and I had returned to the house and were standing at the steps leading from the garage into the house, when she heard some sounds. Although I couldn't hear them, she insisted that there were baby mice under the steps. There was only one thing to do—get them out.
The house is only a few years old, and well made. The steps were constructed of heavy boards, four steps high, and seemed a separate unit from the building itself. We guessed that they were fastened in place, but the only evidence we found was an angle bracket at one end. The other end was obscured by plasterboard.
"If we could just get one of these boards off," she said, kicking at a stair tread. We looked around the garage and found a pick axe. Bracing it against a couple of pieces of lumber, we tried to pry off the tread. It was solidly attached. Nothing budged.
At one end of the steps, Cynthia removed the two visible screws from the angle bracket, and we managed to pull the structure out from the wall at that end about an inch. "Aha!" she said, and went to the other end. The wallboard had been applied over the fastening at that end. She found a small keyhole saw and began cutting an opening in the wallboard. "If I can get this done before Rich gets back home. . . "
Under the wallboard was the other angle bracket. Her power screwdriver made short work of removing the screws. We tugged on the steps, and finally moved the unit out from the wall. Sure enough, there was a nest, with several tiny mice moving about in frantic little jerking motions.
Just then, her husband Rich drove up. "What's going on?" he asked, eyeing the pickaxe. Cynthia showed him the nest. "We trapped their mommy," she said.
Even in the midst of their efforts to rid their house of the infestation, both of them were suddenly full of compassion for the tiny creatures. As their two dogs caught the scent of the nest, they tried to work their way behind the steps, but were firmly sent away. Rich found a cardboard box, and they put the nest inside the box, the baby mice still in it. "They don't even have their eyes open!" Cynthia exclaimed. "We have to feed them, or they will die."
"You have to get rid of that nest," Rich observed. "That is gross."
"I'll get some paper to make them a nest." Cynthia soon had replaced the nest with scraps of paper toweling. "But what can we feed them?" They took the box into the house.
(Note: You can click on the photographs to see larger versions of them)
A couple of years before, Cynthia had written to me and related a moving story of discovering another nest of baby mice in a backpack in the garage. Those were even younger than these, without fur and completely helpless. She had tried to feed them milk with an eyedropper, and had even taken them to bed with her to keep them warm. Despite her efforts, the mice had died. It was obvious to me that she was prepared to go as far with these tiny creatures.
I took a couple of photographs of her holding one of the mice in her hands. I marveled at her compassion. This part of Colorado is a wild place; humans are encroaching at a great rate, but still, the density of the human population is overwhelmingly outnumbered by wild creatures. Guns and hunting and fishing are common. The death of non-human creatures is unremarkable. Rich, like most of his neighbors, owns a gun. They both eat meat. And even Rich seemed as concerned about the welfare of five baby mice as was Cynthia.
Someone suggested that the pet store in town might have something to feed baby mice. Cynthia and I went into town to run several errands, and stopped at the pet store. We returned home with a package of dried formula for baby kittens. Cynthia and Rich began feeding their charges every two hours, using a hypodermic syringe (sans needle) to offer the milk-like liquid to tiny squirming mouths. (I managed a couple of feedings, with a lot of misgivings about my success.)
The mice were less than two inches in length and must have weighed a lot less than an ounce. One had opened his eyes; the others searched around with little head-jerks, often losing the end of the syringe. A couple of them moved very little. But after two days, they were still alive.
When I reminded Cynthia of what the encyclopedia had said about how fast mice mature and reproduce, she admitted that she wasn't prepared to begin raising mice. "When they are big enough," she said, "I'll take them down the road and let them go."
Knowing Cynthia, I thought, that won't be easy for her. But she'll do it. A lot of people (me, for example) develop strong attachments to animals they have sustained contact with. Letting go is like cutting off an arm. What I'm coming to see in this young woman is true compassion, a respect for the needs of another creature in its own right, separate from one's own, at the same time acknowledging the ultimate connection among us all, the spirit that links all sentient beings.
Donald Skiff, September 18, 1998