I am pleased to report that, once again, our house is home to wee rodents, this time a pair of gerbils named Salt and Peppa.
Salt is the smaller of the two, clever, energetic, and mischievous. Peppa is more reserved, less social, and also mischievous.
Basically, if you own a rodent, you’re going to have to accommodate some degree of mischief.
Case in point: In 1970, my parents purchased their first home in the North Jersey suburbs, a modest, two-story fixer upper. My father wasn’t very good at fixing-upping, however, so he left the painting, hammering, and electrical stuff to Mom and searched out a task that was better suited to his unique set of skills.
When the house revealed itself to have a mouse problem, Dad was on the case.
He toddled to the hardware store to pick up a humane Havahart trap and borrowed an unused, dusty, rusty birdcage from Grandpa. Dad’s plan was simple. He would trap the mice in the Havahart and deposit them in the cage. Once the mice were all caught, he would take the cage to a wooded area some distance away and release them.
That night, Dad set the Havahart using peanut butter for bait. Then he fixed up the cage, stocking it with everything a mouse could ever want: plenty of food and water and high piles of shredded up newspaper to serve as bedding. (Dad was nothing if not a good host.)
Less than an hour later, the trap sprang shut. His first mouse! Dad deposited the critter into the cage. He covered the cage with a sheet (I’m not sure why that was necessary, exactly. For privacy, maybe?), got more peanut butter, reset the trap, and went to bed.
The next morning, Dad awoke to find a new mouse in the trap. He pulled back a corner of the sheet, put the new mouse in the cage, replaced the sheet, grabbed the peanut butter, and reset the trap. Late in the afternoon, the trap clattered shut yet again. Again, Dad pulled back a corner the sheet, deposited the new mouse in the cage with the other two mice, replaced the sheet, got out the peanut butter, and reset the trap.
And so it went. For days Dad caught mice and put them in the cage. He replenished the cage’s food and water supplies as needed. He also began to ask himself—with increasing alarm—Just how many freaking mice are in my house?!
The answer to his question was: one.
One mouse who really liked peanut butter.
This mouse liked peanut butter so much, he would escape the cage several times a day and get himself re-caught several times a day just so he could keep eating the Havahart’s bait.
The sheet draped over the cage was the means for his escape. The mouse had grabbed a corner of the sheet in his mouth and pulled it into the cage until the thin wire bars stretched apart wide enough for him to wriggle through.
The mouse—with help from Dad—had carved out a wonderful life for himself. He had complete freedom of movement, a safe comfortable place to sleep, and an endless supply of good food and water.
It was Mom who discovered the escape plan. When she did, she expelled what would be the first of several lifetimes’ worth of exasperated sighs. “How on earth,” she asked Dad, “did you not notice that there were no other mice in the cage?”
“I thought they were all hiding under the newspaper,” he replied sheepishly.
“It was at that moment,” Mom told me many years later, “I first realized that your father needs constant supervision.”
Mom was right, of course; Dad was not a guy one could leave alone with a task. But, to be fair, when a person engages in a battle of wits against a rodent, the smart money should always be on the wee one.
I’ve written a great deal on this blog about how much I like cute little rodents. Over the course of my life, I’ve owned three gerbils, one fancy rat, one sewer rat, and an adorably blorpy guinea pig named Pig.
This has led Jilanne Hoffmann – one of my more smart-alecky blog followers – to suggest that my pro rodent (“prodent”) views must be the result of some sort childhood trauma.
Well, Jilanne, you’re right. Thanks so much for forcing me to dredge up my past. I hope you’re happy!
Sigh. Well, I might as well tell all of you what happened.
My story takes place in the summer of 1979. I was eight.
When I was young, I loved to sleep over at my maternal grandparents’ house. In retrospect this is kind of strange thing for me to love. Yes, both Grandma and Grandpa were very nice to me (and neither thought twice about plying me with ice cream) but there was also a lot of tension in that house. My grandparents didn’t have a marriage that one would describe as “happy.”
Actual dialogue between my grandparents:
Grandpa (Entering the kitchen:)
So! What’s for dinner?
I usually stayed overnight at their house by myself, but on this occasion, my six-year-old cousin, Jason, was there, too. This was great, for it was the middle of summer and my grandparents’ pool was always more fun when there was someone else to swim with.
Shortly after my Mom dropped me off, Jason and I were taking turns doing cannonballs off the diving board when I came up with my brilliant idea: I had noticed that the pool’s water level was about ten inches below the topmost edge. To my eight-year-old brain this was kind of a bummer.
“I got an idea!” I shouted to Jason. “Let’s fill up the pool to the very, very top!”
My plan was simple. We would get some buckets and go into the house. We would fill the buckets up in the bathroom sink, go back outside, and dump the water into the pool. We would then repeat these actions until the pool was completely full. Easy peasy mac ‘n’ cheesy.
There were a couple of problems with the plan, of course – the first of which is that all pools have pumps to regulate water levels. But even if that machinery didn’t exist, it would have still taken a few thousand gallons to raise a pool’s water level 10 inches. That’s a lot of trips to Grandma’s bathroom.
I had no grasp of these problems. The only problem I could discern was that there was only one bucket in the dilapidated shed that held the pool toys. But this didn’t faze me. I handed my cousin a toy tugboat. It had small holes in the top which allowed it to be filled with water. It was no bucket, but it would still help the pool-filling cause.
Happily wielding our water receptacles, we went into the house, leaving wet footprints in our wake. I filled up my bucket and turned to leave, expecting Jason to be a few steps behind me. Instead, he screamed like a banshee.
This was not part of the plan.
Little did either of us know, a mouse was living inside of the toy tugboat – and this mouse didn’t take too kindly to drowning. So, once water started gushing in it’s home, it leapt onto Jason’s shoulder just long enough to give a kid a coronary. Then the mouse scrambled into the kitchen and under the refrigerator.
Grandma was on the scene in an instant. She spotted me first. When she was agitated, she would mix up her grandchildren’s names. Without fail, she would start to call me Jason before switching gears in mid-word.
“Ja-Michael! What happened?”
But all I could do was shrug. I hadn’t seen the drama unfold.
She ran into the bathroom. I followed. There we found a paralyzed Jason – who was not quite paralyzed enough to not rat me out.
Grandma learned of my pool-filling idea. More importantly, she learned that because of my pool filling idea there was now a mouse hiding in her spotless kitchen.
To my surprise, she took the news in stride. Then she did something that was even more surprising, something I had never seen her do before or since: she sought out Grandpa.
As I mentioned earlier, Grandma and Grandpa did not get along. I learned just about every curse word on the planet from Grandma; she used those words to describe Grandpa. I had grown up believing that those two old people had absolutely nothing, nothing, nothing in common.
But I was wrong. When it came to rodents, my grandparents were of one mind: the deader the better.
Grandpa, normally a pretty excitable fellow, was also shockingly sanguine upon hearing the news. He just nodded, hopped into his livingroom-on-wheels of a car, and glided down the street.
Ten minutes later he was back bearing mousetraps. I had never seen traps like these before. The traps my father used in our house were called “Hav-a-Hearts.” They kept the mice secure in a cage until they could be released into the wild.
Grandpa’s trap didn’t have a cage.
Grandpa gathered Jason and me to his side. “Let me show you boys how these work.” He was in Mr. Wizard mode.
With some effort he pulled back the metal bar and clicked it into place. He laid the trap flat on the kitchen table. Then he handed me a wooden spoon.
“See that spot?” he said, pointing to the trigger.
“I’m gonna put peanut butter there for our little friend. Now touch that with the spoon.”
And THWACK! The bar slammed down with such force it left a dent in the spoon. Grandpa smiled, I suppose he was expecting me to be delighted.
But I wasn’t delighted. I was shocked. Then I was furious.
“You’re not using that,” I said.
“Of course I’m using that,” he replied, a little bewildered. “You let a mouse into the house and we have to get rid of it.”
It was at about that point I became unglued. “No, no, no!”
“Wait a minute,” he said. “Settle down.”
“You can’t use that trap! You gotta use the other kind! The kind with the cage! The kind daddy uses!”
Then Grandma joined the conversation. “Knock it off, Ja-Michael! We’re not going to keep that thing in a cage!”
I could not believe my ears. Grandma was taking Grandpa’sside? Grandma never took Grandpa’s side! How could she take his side when less than an hour before she called him s***head? Had the world gone topsy turvy?
I was dumbstruck. My grandparents had joined forces to oppose me and I was powerless to stop them.
And it was all my fault! If it wasn’t for my stupid pool filling idea, that mouse would’ve lived his entire cute little life in a cute little toy tugboat. My God, he was like the main character in a picture book and my grandparents wanted to snap his spine in two!
So I did the only thing I could do under these terrible circumstances: I waved an accusing finger at them both. “If you use that, I’m going home!”
“Oh, stop it,” said Grandma. “Get an ice cream.”
“I mean it!” I screamed.
And I did mean it. I carried on like this until Grandma called Mom and told her to pick me up. My overnight trip to Grandma’s was no longer than two hours.
I didn’t say much on the car ride home. I was sick to my stomach; I was afraid of what Mom was going to do to me. Mom was the one who laid down the law in our house. I had stupidly brought a mouse into her parents’ house and then, when they attempted to deal with the problem, I screamed at them like a maniac. Maybe I had the math wrong, but I was pretty sure that was grounds for justifiable homicide.
I sat in the shadowy-est corner of the backseat. I tried to become invisible. Mom and I were quiet for a very, very long time.
She spoke first.
“What you did,” Mom said finally, “was very principled.”
That was it. As far as Mom was concerned, nothing more needed to be said. She knew how much I loved my pet gerbils. She got it.
My grandmother, on the other hand, didn’t get it. She never really got over it, either. For the rest of her life, she told that mouse story to anyone who would listen. The takeaway of the story was, “My grandson is nuts.”
But I never minded. In fact, when Grandma told the story, it filled me with a weird sense of pride. No, I wasn’t able to save that mouse. But that little guy didn’t die in vain. He radicalized my prodent beliefs — and for that I am forever grateful.