The Mouse in the Basement
"Yep, thereís one in there, all right." Peering into the dim space above the dropped ceiling panel, I could see the live trap with its doors shut and locked. Inside, very likely, a small animal was peering back at me, uncomprehending. I turned the light off and went back up the basement stairs. Our cat, unaware of our visitor, led the way, bounding quickly up each step just ahead of my bare feet and stopped on the landing, then turned to make sure I was aware of his presence. The gray light of October morning came through the little window in the back door at the top of the stairs.
I drank a glass of orange juice, then sat on my cushion for forty minutes. The mouse would be all right where he was until after breakfast. The image of the trap sitting in the dimness kept visiting me, reminding me.
A couple of times a year, mice find their way into our house. Weíve never found their entryway. Itís probably somewhere along the bottom row of shingles just above the foundation. I keep promising Judith and myself that I will somehow seal up all the possible ports of mouse entry (we also had a particularly nasty-tempered vole in our basement this spring). Inside, they have a clear playing field on top of the basement ceiling panels suspended an inch or so below the floor joists. Each time we remove a panel to arrange telephone or cable wiring, we find evidence that they have been there. So far, theyíve not caused any damage that we know of. In the past couple of years, however, weíve seen their traces on the counter in the kitchen, and our cat spends a lot of time in front of the range, peering into the darkness under it. Apparently, the mice come up into the kitchen around the pipes. When we notice evidence of their presence, we set the live trap in the space above the basement ceiling, near the kitchen pipes, and usually capture, one at a time, as many as six before the trap sits untried for a few days, telling us that this family, at least, has been evicted.
I take each captured creature outside and drive to a nearby woodsy area to let it out of the trap. Sometimes one of them is reluctant to be abandoned, and it hangs onto the metal cage, preferring the known hell to the unknown freedom. A gentle shake convinces him, and he disappears into the tall weeds.
Once, we set an occupied trap out on the deck to prepare for human visitors. It was cool but not freezing outside. A couple of hours later we found the poor mouse dead in the cage. Another time I forgot to check the trap in the basement for a couple of days, and then found another dead mouse, probably starved. It was tiny, and perhaps too young to survive more than a few hours without food. When I set the trap, I always provide a generous portion of peanut butter for the captiveís long wait. I prefer not to think of it as its last meal.
This morning, I ate my breakfast and read for a while before setting out to deliver the visitor to a more appropriate location. But thoughts of the mouse kept intruding. I would not deliberately kill an animal, and I felt sorrow and shame when my negligence caused those couple to perish. I recognize that they are a nuisance to homes in our neighborhood and no doubt in most others. Laws protect "wild animals" in the city from deliberate harm (or harboring, for that matter). But few people would protest the killing of a mouse. "Small" and/or "plentiful" are probably the keywords in determining personal as well as public policy.
Female mice produce litters of four to eight young after a gestation period of three weeks; under favorable conditions they breed throughout the year. The young mature in two months. That means that, undisturbed, a pair in the house can produce hundreds more in just a few months. We first noticed that our house was also a mouse home soon after we moved in. I work in the basement, and in the quiet of the night Iíd hear them scampering across over my head. Once I heard a couple (at least) in a terrible fight. It was the first time I actually heard their cries, and a lot of thumping and running. Thatís when we bought the trap.
They donít look like Mickey Mouse. Their ears are smaller, and their protruding eyes are much larger. They huddle in the corner of the trap, waiting. Once, I set the trap on the stairs while I tended to other things before taking the latest captive for a ride. The cat, who had ignored previous inhabitants, and in fact had simply sat and watched the vole scampering from hiding place to hiding place, was suddenly fascinated by the creature inside the trap. He draped himself over the step, half on the next one, and peered into the semidarkness of the little cage. The mouse was probably saying its last prayers, sure of its imminent demise. But the cat, with no claws on its front feet and without training or experience in hunting, simply watched. He probably recognized the smell of the animal as the same as that under the range. A friend had suggested we put the cat up into the ceiling, where he could rid the house of visitors in a short time. I rather doubted it.
I realize that I have the power of life or death over any mouse I captureóat least up to a point. The easiest way to "dispose" of the problem is to "dispose" of the mouse. But I cannot do that directly without a lot of bad feelings. Dumping a mouse in the weeds somewhere beyond their normal 50-yard range (as Iíve read) seems a humane way to let them live but not live with me. However, I donít know the temperature range in which they can live, even assuming that a dumped mouse can build a new life and nest and necessary social connections within a reasonable time. I assume that they can find something to eat in the area where I drop them off. I donít dwell much on how safe it is for them in that place. They are wild creatures, after all, so they must know how to take care of themselves. Nor do I give much thought to the fact that they might have been born in the very home I claim as my own, and their mother may have been snagged by my trap by the time they were weaned from her milk. Does a house mouse know instinctively how to fend for itself in the "real" wild?
I donít have much sense of Darwinian imperatives regarding mice. I canít even make up my mind about the ethical solutions to the Michigan deer population. I detest the idea of hunting, even knowing that if it were outlawed the swelling deer population would soon create a crisis (or two) for our human population. If I relocate a dozen or so mice a year, I doubt that Iím upsetting the environment very much. (I recognize that the 50-yard range Iíve read about would apply only to the animals I moveónot to their descendants or to other small animals in the area that might be crowded over in the direction of neighboring houses.) Environmentalists keep telling us that we civilized creatures donít know the effects of what we do, and whatever we do itís usually unfortunate in some way. As I respond to most questions I canít answer, I close my eyes and hope for the best. Just not in my house, if you please.
So I couldnít join PETA without a feeling of hypocrisy. I can enjoy a bit of self-righteous smugness over my decision to quit eating meat, as long as I donít brag about it. I can join with others in bemoaning cruelty to animals and other people. I can try to avoid running over that squirrel in the road. In the end, though, I donít know how to live in this world with other creatures. I envy those who have ready answers to these questions.
Peering through the bars in my Havahart trap at this tiny being, whose wide eyes take me in and whose trembling body is as much a part of life as my own, I donít know how to relate to him. Our dog has learned how to make her needs known to me, and seems to hold great affection for me. I may not treat her as I would want to be treated, but I donít think she suffers from our relationship. Iím not so sure of that regarding our cat, who keeps more to himself. I decided years ago, about the time I gave up eating meat, that I would not want another caged creature in our house. Still, I have the uncomfortable feeling that even these "pets" are more slaves than fellow creatures. The mice who occasionally move into the warmth and security of my home may have as much right to be here as I do. My deed of ownership carries little weight with them.
What is the measure of my "rights?" Apart from the law, which assumes many things Iím not convinced about, how do I decide what is just regarding non-human creatures? Joseph Chilton Pearce, in his book Exploring the Crack in the Cosmic Egg said that possession is a semantic illusion. I can only say that my home is my castle if my society agrees that it is. Cultural values are as persuasive as they are pervasive, but that doesnít mean they are always right. Mice, like men and women, die. All of them. All of us. This house, like most of those Iíve lived in, will be here after Iím gone from this life. Something in me wants to leave the mice alone. It seems arrogant to insist that this place belongs to me.
In the 1945 novel about the pacific war Beach Red by Peter Bowman, the dilemma was put something like, "Nobodyís out here talking you red, white and blue in the face. Thereís just you and your firearm, the enemy and his, and a perfectly democratic opportunity to use your own judgment." Rightsóand wrongsóare irrelevant, if you dig deep enough. But how deep is enough?
When I was young, I killed animals. I didnít think it was cruel (Iíve never thought I was a cruel person, even when the evidence seems to indicate otherwise) until one day I had to confront myself. I had often used a rifle to shoot rabbits in the bush. Everybody I knew did it. Then someone asked me to kill a rabbit that was raised in a cage for its meat, and I had to do it with a length of pipe. It then became a very personal act, and one I never forgot. Hunting was never the same for me after that.
I lifted the cage gently from its dim perch and carried it outside. The sun was just touching the red maple in the back of our yard, setting it afire. I could feel the weight of the trap shifting in my grasp as the captive mouse frantically dashed back and forth inside. After a short drive to Bird Hills Sanctuary, I carried him over to the edge of the woods and opened the door of the trap. He dropped into the leaves, paused for an instant, and was gone. I took a deep breath of chill autumn air.
The last verse from Robert Burnsís poem "To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough" expresses envy at the simplicity of life as seen by a mouse (as seen by a man).
My agonizing over the fate of these little creatures seems more about my own regret and fear than about the suffering of another creature. I just hope there are options besides shrugging it off or self-flagellation.
Donald Skiff, October 18, 2001