One night, I rose from my bed and shuffled to the kitchen for a glass of water. A loud scuffling sound startled me into wakefulness. Backlit against the LED lights under my cabinet was a mouse standing on its hind legs, peering at me intently. We shared a brief moment of panicked eye contact before it turned and darted directly into one of the burners on the stovetop. The very stovetop where I’d prepared food, food that I had then put in my mouth and chewed and swallowed, mere hours before.
Disgusted and exhausted, I abandoned the water and retreated to my bedroom, shutting the door. I pulled the covers over my head and hid, and did not sleep.
Outside, my cat meowed, big green eyes blinking. He was waiting for me to put kibble in his bowl.
Ever since humans began growing our own food and hoarding it in our houses, we have had a fractious relationship with rodent-kind. Our ancestors were likely motivated to domesticate dogs and cats for pest control purposes, at least initially. When animal labor proved to be unreliable (sigh), people devised mouse-catching contraptions of variable levels of cleverness. Since traps are often made of wood and therefore difficult to preserve against the weathering of time, we don’t have a lot of information about those of yore did about their mouse infestations, particularly the ancients. We can glean some information from depictions in art and historical research.
The first mousetrap is unknown, but one of the most “famous” art history mousetraps can be found in the Merode triptych. In the rightmost panel, Joseph is depicted as a woodworker, fashioning some mousetraps. The mousetrap is traditionally read as a metaphor for capturing the truth, or catching Satan in a lie, depending. Evidently there is some controversy over whether or not Joseph is actually building mousetraps or some other old timey contraption. But this level of nerdery extends well beyond the author’s patience for indulging in esoteric fact checking.
Mousetrap history starts to get more detailed beginning in the late 19th century, after the first patent was filed. Ralph Waldo Emerson, sayer of witty aphorisms, once purportedly claimed: “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” Since that first patent, countless people have certainly tried, with their variations on the form. Traps fall roughly under these categories: keepers, beaters, smashers, stickers, snappers and zappers. Some resemble little rodent guillotines. Some have what appear to be teeth, and are basically miniature iron maidens.
Yes, there are poisons, too – I exclude them from this list because they rely more on chemistry, less on good ol’ engineering and pluck. Plus, in my opinion, they seem the most gruesome of all. Most are anticoagulants, which cause the affected rodent to bleed internally and slowly die over the course of several days.
This is not the first time we’ve had mice during my tenure in this apartment. My roommate is vegan and committed to not harming animals, so deathtraps were off the table, so to speak. In lieu of regular snap traps, we got a Hav-a-Hart live trap and watched four or five YouTube videos until we figured out how to set it up. To my vast surprise, one morning, the metal jail ensnared a little fellow. I looked at him, shitting and urinating in the cage. He was a tiny little thing. Cute, even. I almost felt sorry for him, but then I recalled that the reason we were evicting him was because he was shitting and urinating all over our kitchen, a most undesirable condition.
Since mice are not great about honoring the terms of protective orders, I had my roommate carry him miles away to release by the Maryland Zoo. Whereupon he was probably immediately eaten by a hawk or some other lucky carnivore, despite our trouble to keep him safe. All this aside, the arrangement was agreeable to the both of us, right until it stopped working. One day my roommate had failed to set the trap correctly, and the suspect fled. And apparently told her friends and family.
Mice are smart, teachable creatures. We share a lot of our DNA with them, which renders them quite useful for research on our brains. Once the escaped suspect fled and told her cohort, observed rodent activity slowed down in the apartment. We assumed the rodents had simply packed up and moved elsewhere, and started to relax about triple bagging and tupperwaring our food. Until suddenly they came back, in full force. They skirted around the Hav-a-Hart trap, choosing instead to attack my roommate’s trove of nuts and grains from Trader Joe’s.
Though previously my roommate had been the second least-concerned entity in the apartment about the mouse problem (the least least-concerned being my lazy housecat), something in my roommate snapped. I came home from work to find that he had ripped the refrigerator and oven away from the walls, and had sprayed every minute crack and hole in the kitchen with expandable foam and irregular pieces of plywood. His eyes had an insane gleam to them.
But it worked. After that, all was quiet on the Western front.
For the time being.
Forcefully cohabitating with rodents exerts this manic effect on people’s brains. After a while, people are willing to do almost anything to extrude the mice. One of my coworkers had a significant mouse problem; she used glue traps to deal with it (also not a highly humane way to dispatch with mice, but hey, they were not my mice). She would bag any captured mice and put them in her car, and drive the wriggling bag to her workplace, whereupon she would drop a brick on it, and toss it into the work dumpster. She did this for weeks, until she found the entry way the mice had been using and sealed it.
Another person I know would lure the mouse into a bucket. He would then pour some baking soda and vinegar into the bucket and seal it, essentially suffocating the mouse via third grade science class volcano.
Some of the most madcap suggestions I have ever heard can be found in the comments section of this blog. My personal favorite is the commenter who uses “magic tree car air fresheners, mice hate the smell.” I just imagine a house full of car trees dangling everywhere. I bet it’s actually very effective, as I personally wouldn’t want to be occupying that space. There is also a person who suggests mixing plaster of Paris mixed with birdseed and bacon grease, which the mouse would ingest and thereby turn into a statue from the inside out. This is slightly less crazy than this commenter suggestion: “Lye with dog food, they love dog food. The lye dissolves their body and you never even know it. Till you clean the bones. Fast too.”
Remind me never to cross user ddn.
During this latest mousecapade, my roommate was away for a month long trip. Mouse murder was back on the table. I did about five minutes of Amazon.com research and placed an order for an electronic mousetrap, which I’d never used. Yet it sounded more humane than any of the other traps mentioned above, aside from the now useless live trap.
The box advertises that it is capable of killing up to 100 mice per one set of AA batteries. The idea of 100 mice existing in a house I am living in is almost too incomprehensibly bad for me to conceptualize. But it sounded effective and the reviews were good, so I went ahead and got it.
It wasn’t long before I returned home to find a green LED light blinking at me from the apartment shadows. I approached the little black sarcophagus with equal parts excitement (yay, it worked!) and dread (oh no, there is a dead thing). I grabbed some kitchen gloves and a plastic bag and headed outside to conduct the disposal.
In the thin yellow lamplight, I set the little black coffin on the curb, and gingerly opened the door. Of course I knew what lay inside, but I still shrieked. A campus police car rolled slowly past me, assessing me, with my arm-length rubber gloves and several plastic bags and a suspicious black box. She quickly ruled me a MICA student and moved on.
The mouse corpse appeared semi-peaceful, in the deepest repose. I thought about saying some words, maybe making a ritual of it. Perhaps I should bury it. I figured there are probably laws about burying corpses on city property, no matter how small. And anyhow, one of the many neighborhood dogs would find and unearth it – so off into the plastic bag and then the trash it went.
I still think about the mouse from time to time.
I returned home late from a show in DC, tired to the point of stupidity. My neighbors sat on the stoop, trying to engage me in conversation, but all I wanted to do was to stagger to bed and stay there for seven hours. I climbed up the three flights of stairs, took off my shoes and prepared for a much-anticipated reunion with my bed.
In the middle of the doorway to my room, my left foot trod onto something cold and soft. Shrieking, I looked down to discover that I had stepped on a dead mouse. I hopped on one foot to the bathroom to rinse the mouse death off the bottom of my foot, and then I bagged the corpse and took it outside for tossing purposes. My chatty neighbors congratulated me for the catch as I stumbled wearily outside to a nearby park trash can.
I will never quite forget that sensation, the feeling of dead mouse against the bare skin of my foot. It was unmistakably, indescribably distinct from anything else I have felt.
As the commotion transpired, I noticed my cat lurking in the shadows. Could – could he have actually done something useful? Was he responsible for this? Or did the mouse simply die of a heart attack after looking at his huge bulky frame, out of sheer fright? I had the hardest time believing that he is capable of murder, but this fat and fairly useless housecat is descended from lions, after all.
“Well? Did you do this?”
The cat looked up at me with big, dumb green eyes. Like clockwork, he meowed for kibble in his bowl.
Kim Le is a writer and shiftless gadabout who hails from the distant wheat fields of Kansas. Obsessions include sustainability, yurts and extreme DIY. Also, she makes sculptures out of food, mostly potatoes. She never updates her blog at http://badmetaphor.net.