I love rodents because they’re cute and small and easy to care for. They’re fun and playful and full of vim and vigor. They have big personalities.
But I think what I love the most about rodents is their intelligence. Rodents are dang smart.
Lucy, my fancy rat, figured out the latch on her cage and would explore the house whenever the mood struck her. Ethel, my sewer rat (and Lucy’s roommate), was also smart, but in a different way. When Lucy escaped, Ethel stayed put; being a sewer rat, Ethel understood the harshness of the wider world and had no desire to leave the cushy existence I had set up for her.
My childhood gerbil, Jerbs, also escaped from his cage repeatedly—not to explore and raise hell like Lucy, but just to see if he could. It was a puzzle he enjoyed solving. When I would come down to breakfast to find an empty cage, Jerbs would immediately traipse up to my side and stamp his feet boastfully as if to say, “Hey! See what I did? Awesome, right? I am so awesome!”
My guinea pig, Pigamajig, potty trained herself. This bears repeating: I did not potty train my guinea pig. She potty trained herself. Because Pigamajig was a lady, and ladies don’t just go pee-pee on the floor.
My gerbil, Salt, was observant in the way all mischievous children are, waiting for me to glance the other way before misbehaving. Salt’s buddy, Peppa, was the architect of the duo, arranging his toys and toilet paper tubes into a network of walls and tunnels that rivaled the engineering marvels of the ancient Roman aqueducts.
I could go on, but I think the point is made. Rodents are brilliant.
Well… until I got Dusty and Oreo.
Dusty and Oreo are the newest additions to my household. They’re gerbils. They’re cute. They’re friendly.
But wowza, they’re dumb.
Oreo is terrified of my presence and races behind his exercise wheel to avoid me at all costs. I understand this, of course. Rodents can be very timid and often need time to get used to someone. Despite my apparent threat level (and Oreo’s terrified squeaks of “STRANGER DANGER!”) he’ll always accept treats from me, which is something you really shouldn’t do if you think the treat offeror is an enemy.
But that’s good news, you’re thinking. The fact that Oreo is accepting food from you means that you two are establishing trust, right?
Well, no. Moments after I feed him, Oreo forgets me entirely and repeats his terror run whenever I happen to pass by.
Dusty is different. He associates me with food and races to the cage door whenever he sees me coming. Once I give him the treat, however, he decides that he doesn’t like it.
He’ll drop the delectable morsel and mope off, both disappointed in me and life in general—until I give the same treat to Oreo. Then Dusty wants it. He wants that dang treat more than anything else in the entire world.
So Dusty chases Oreo around the cage demanding the treat. Oreo, the beta male, does as Dusty commands.
Poor Oreo, I think.
So I offer Oreo a second treat. But Oreo runs behind the exercise wheel because I am an evil stranger.
It should be noted that my gerbils need these treats because they’re starving. The gerbils are starving because they can’t find their food bowl. They can’t find their food bowl because they bury their food bowl under bedding. Then they forget that the food is there.
Sometimes I think I can almost hear their anguished conversations:
OREO: I’m so hungry Dusty!
DUSTY: I know, my friend. I am, too.
OREO: Maybe we should look around for food?
DUSTY: There’s no point. Searching for food will only weaken us further.
OREO: I guess you’re right, Dusty. You’re so smart.
DUSTY: I know, Oreo. I know.
So every day I scoop bedding out of their food bowl and say, “Look dummies, food.”
They stare at the bowl in wonder. “FOOD!” they squeak. They scarf it down. A minute or two later, however, they begin to worry.
The Food is really important! they think.
We need to protect The Food!
We’ll protect The Food by hiding The Food!
We’ll hide The Food under the bedding!
So the gerbils bury the food bowl and, in a twinkling, forget that the food bowl is there.
I sigh. Alarmed by my sigh, Oreo hides behind the exercise wheel.
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.