Of Mice and Man
By Marty Kafka
The recent winter weather was particularly harsh when Adam heard them scamper behind the walls of his bedroom. He reported the noises as a matter of fact the next morning while we savored Scottish lox and fresh bagels, a brunch indulgence that commemorates his visits from the West Coast.
This was not the first time we had been afflicted by mice, but it had been many years since their last visitation. I quietly ventured up into our attic, the repository of our family papers, tax returns, old furniture, and pictures. If we couldn’t part with a belonging, it resided in our attic. With lots of open space and a slanting low ceiling, we rarely visited this no-man’s land of exiled possessions.
I could have let the matter drop, but about a decade ago, we found a dead mouse on our upstairs steps–inside our living space. I’m an upper-middle class liberal by nature, but my big tent doesn’t include house mice. Something had to be done.
From our last encounter with these shy rodents, I had purchased two mouse traps. Not the kind that loudly cracks the neck of the victim when they are inexorably drawn by winter’s cold and hunger to the irresistible bait. Rather, I had two mouse traps that were advertised as “humane–no chemicals, no glue, no electricity, no poison.” Stick the bait in the back of the five-inch long, hollow cylindrical trap, and when the mouse visits at night, a one-way trap door closes behind them. There are a few breathing holes so that, while contained, in theory, the mouse is supposed to remain alive, but it literally can’t move. It can’t turn around–it is immobilized. Carefully, I cut out home-made cardboard feeding squares, smeared Whole Foods organic peanut butter on the squares, placed them at the back of the traps, and waited patiently.
For a couple of days, there was no action at the traps so I stopped my daily checking. After a few more days passed, however, Karen reminded me to check the traps—so, on the next morning, I did. Two immobilized mice–both dead, were just starting to decay. I carefully carried the traps and their prey outside with gloved hands, spilled their contents in a remote section of our back yard, cleaned the traps scrupulously in our basement utility sink, and let the seasoned mousetraps rest.
Like the nocturnal activity of the meek mice, it was during my bedtime hour that insidious thoughts of my callous disregard of innocent life came back to taunt me, reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. I was a cold-blooded muricidal killer. I was merciless. I let those helpless rodents suffer. Did they die from brute starvation, from asphyxiation, from hypothermia?
I had dehumanized these innocent creatures. I trapped them effectively, but now I was also trapped–by the obsession of my own remorse. Maybe I should have just let the mice set up a home base in our attic? Live and let live! But what if they mated in the coming spring? Would we have a rodent family surviving by nibbling away at our old tax returns? Or worse, a family of varmints crawling down to our family living space again, this time spreading some vicious infectious disease, like vampire mice seeking bloody vengeance?
Fortunately, as time has passed, I have been able to dismiss these lurid guilty thoughts, but is that really a good thing for my mental health? Has my conscience become irrevocably hardened as an unintended consequence of capturing and killing undocumented immigrant mice seeking any available shelter? Am I a cold-blooded muricidal maniac?
In penance, I vow to purchase new, larger traps so mice can be apprehended but not immobilized. I sincerely hope that I have murdered my last mouse–may those I did dispatch rest in peace in a fabled, far-away land of plenty.