Of mice and me
I have a love for old trucks and possess a small fleet of them. As a result, I also am an innkeeper for an astonishing number of flagrantly promiscuous mice, who consider residing in a farm truck the epitome of gracious living. Opening the door of a truck unused for a few months, I am invariably greeted with the unmistakable odor of mouse droppings and the sight of small piles of chewed seat stuffing, or more likely, shredded paper from heat ducts, glove boxes, owner manuals, or registration forms. It is always a joy to turn on the heater or defroster, spraying beeswings, corn dust and mouse pellets about the cab and on the windshield. I am engaged in an ongoing and epic struggle to keep my beloved vehicles, as well as the rest of the farm, from being slowly devoured by these despicable pests.
All the standard remedies have proved only marginally successful. Camphor (mothballs or flakes) actually seems to act less as a repellent than as an aphrodisiac on my farm. My neighbor Phil claims to have found a mouse nest in a box of moth flakes. But then again, he graduated from Purdue. At any rate the only repelling effect camphor seems to have is on me, as all the cabs on my farm smell like my aunts' closets. Meanwhile, seat covers and wiring insulation are being thoroughly enjoyed by the smelly little rodents. I rotate various poison baits, but these control measures carry their own price, namely, pungent little carcasses slowly decomposing in unreachable parts of the cab.
Given these trials, it is understandable how powerful the urge to confront these interlopers is. When I am working in the shop, my loyal but marginally competent dog Spike usually spends his time patrolling the crevices and corners. After several years, he has trained me to respond to his signals. When he is barking persistently and digging around in burlap sacks or sprayer parts, I am expected to come and move things away from the wall so he can make a stab at the mouse. Since the prey tends to travel around the outside of the shop, what usually transpires is, after an hour or so of feverish work and constant barking, the entire parts, supply, and tool inventory is piled in the center of the floor. Every now and then, we get lucky and actually flush one out, and in fairness, Spike is pretty thorough when given room to operate. Lately we have been hampered by the participation of my backup dog Psycho, who is mentally impoverished, so to speak. Psycho somehow feels his best contribution is to carry off tools and rags as fast as possible to various parts of the yard, distributing them across the widest possible area. When the mouse appears, Psycho gets terribly excited and proceeds to bark vigorously at Spike's rear end, for a reason I hope I never understand. When Spike and I are successful, Psycho takes over as a sort of rodent undertaker, carrying the body around for days and arranging for tasteful and dignified, although unannounced, viewings for all the family whenever possible.
The truly great moment in these mano a mano rituals, however, is the discovery of a rat. Rats are designed to be despised, like referees or successful classmates. I am happy to oblige. Spike goes into a paroxysm of barking and digging, Psycho starts carrying tools outside in twos and threes, and I grab for the traditional rat-killing weapon, the aluminum scoop. I also take the time to tuck my pants into the top of my boots. [This is a carryover from my college days, when my friends and I would take our dates to the dump to shoot rats. (And those sorority girls thought engineers weren't fun dates!) It took only one demonstration to convince me that, while having a rat run up your leg is not to be desired, at least make sure it is on the outside of your clothing.] No effort should be spared in the pursuit of a rat. There is a visceral, primitive satisfaction in sending one of these vermin to Rat Heaven, or is that an oxymoron?
Similarly, the only redeeming feature of our cat Scamper, other than his totally original name, is the ability to catch mice. What is not so appreciated is his practice of bringing the semi-dead trophies back home to show off and play with in the middle of the night. Scamper has developed the unusual ability to meow clearly with a mouthful of rodent. (This is how he lets Jan know he has decided to come in.) After being fooled a few times, Jan now keeps a light beside the bed to prevent any feline mouse smuggling. Scamper retaliates by devouring the mouse just outside the screen door, letting us share in the scratching and bone crunching. Yum! In Scamper's defense, I must admit, he possesses an abiding hatred of rats. When we lived in a small older house shortly after returning to the farm, Scamper would hear something in the attic occasionally. On one occasion, he was acting so strange (even for a cat), that I got a stepladder to lift the trapdoor to the attic above the back porch. As I raised the door with my head and turned the flashlight I found myself nose to nose with the Mother of All Rats, or at least an Aunt. Thinking quickly, I screamed and fell off the ladder. To this day, I still think that cat was laughing. We moved the following summer.
Since it is a scientific fact that mice breed spontaneously from bags of seed corn, I think the challenge of defending our way of life from these prolific pests should be a major concern to all farmers. One obvious answer is the introduction of more snakes, perhaps bred in confinement farms. Another would be the prohibition of cat food, causing the laziest animals in the world, outside of the civil service, to work for a living. The best hope, however, may be a federal tax of $1 per mouse. Nobody will have any mice then.