Contemplating the Death of Mice

Is there really a better mousetrap?
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I sit in my living room on a quiet winter morning dimmed by an opaque, gray sky. I hear crunching, first thinking a squirrel is playing on my roof, or winter snow and ice is starting to slide. The intermittent sound is persistent and peculiar. I walk toward it. It stops. I stop, looking, listening, sniffing (okay not really sniffing). It starts again — a clattering more than crunching. I walk closer.

It’s not from the roof but from below. A block of mouse poison bounces seemingly on its own in a corner near the fireplace. I jump back. It stops. And then starts again. The block must be possessed by a devil. I look closer and can see the frantic eyes of the mouse tucked behind the cube of poison. I question my judgment of the mouse’s eyes as frantic — other than another mouse, who really understands facial expressions of mice? The rodent’s body is hidden into a corner where the brick meets the metal fire barrier. Only its head is in view as it works to chew the mass of poison into a shape that will pass through the tight passage into the space beside the firebox.

I consider the creature’s thoughts. The position seems safe — retreat for the animal, if needed, can be instantaneous. Since its main motivation for seeking out my house is warmth, plenty seems available adjacent to the fireplace. And a ready supply of food sits at its door. To a mouse, over the short term, the setup seems ideal.

My wife and I have considered the various methods to deal with the rodent issue. The phrasing — “control”, “deal”— of course, is euphemistic. More bluntly, we debate the methods of killing mice. Many readers might recall conversations with friends, neighbors, and relatives about this topic. These conversations start with intensity but quickly end — the topic just isn’t something we enjoy discussing. I’ve chosen to write about it here in more detail than a discussion among friends might tolerate.

When we were younger and living in various large cities in the Midwest and later, in the Highland Park section of Pittsburgh, we chose the snapping variety of mousetrap. While effective, setting the trap was a bit nerve wracking not only because of the trap’s purpose but also because one’s fingers seemed threatened. And often the trap did its work (there I go again with a euphemism) at night. The audible snap of death would wake me assigning me an unwelcome chore in the morning. Disposing of the remains offered a close up view of the mechanism of death. To reuse the trap, sometimes the carcass had fused to the wood and needed to be scraped off. As my station in life improved, I could afford not reusing the snap traps. I began simply throwing the traps, the animal still tethered to its “noose”, away after their first use. But, the memory of the disposal would stay with me for a few days. I wondered about a different solution. About six years ago, I moved to a small farm about thirty miles east of Pittsburgh. The rodent issue became more common requiring more thought.

The considerations of rodent control that come into play are as follows. First, effectiveness. I did a brief Internet search of the topic and came to the conclusion that we humans are skilled in creating methods to kill mice. In the home or farm setting, beyond snapping their necks and heads with a rigid metal bar, we’ve invented devices that crush them, electrocute them, poison them (more later) and fuse them to a glue to die a death of dehydration (or perhaps boredom). Of course, millions of laboratory mice are euthanized (this term too seems not quite right — after all, it’s not as if the mouse has a terminal condition) each year. While there is a movement to sacrifice (the obsessive reader might count the different terms for killing I’ve used) laboratory mice more humanely, the established methods that scientists use, for the most part, seem more humane than domestic methods. For completeness sake, the “scientific” methods include carbon dioxide, inhaled anesthetics, injected barbiturates and, brace yourself, guillotine decapitation, and manual cervical displacement (ah…you break their little necks). These later two methods are used when the experiment being conducted will be affected by the presence of anesthesia or high carbon dioxide levels in the animal. Learning manual cervical displacement of a mouse seems particularly problematic, in my mind. Does the student beam a smile of achievement when the instructor calls out, “great job!” I apologize for this article’s emerging gruesomeness. I’ll summarize this section simply be stating the methods we have established for killing mice are highly effective.

Having finished our discussion of effectiveness (thankfully), we move on to consider the humaneness of the methods. The term itself is somewhat curious, being derived from human. “Mousaneness”, however, does seem awkward. From a time perspective, most of the methods that kill the mouse, other than the glue trap, appear to be quick and quick is better. Most conversations I’ve had over the years about the glue trap end the discussion of killing methods — it’s just too unpleasant to think about. I’ll not discuss glue traps further.

Certainly, traps have been devised that do not kill but allow the user to transport and release the mouse some distance away. One recommendation for distance was three miles. I did not look into how that distance was established nor do I know of literature of what happens to a grown mouse when displaced from its home environment. I’ve not used humane traps for mice (somehow, it seems like too much effort) but did so for a pesky groundhog who made his (her?) home under my front porch. This is a longer story than space will allow here but I’ll relay the ending which is that the animal, whom we named Wally, was spotted in its new environment, a park, over a year later. Curiously, at the time, this brought tears to my eyes.

I confess some uncertainty about whether mouse poison is humane. Mouse poison works through anticoagulation such that the animal hemorrhages to death. What the animal experiences in dying this way is not clear to me. I suspect either gastrointestinal bleeding would lead to hours of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, or bleeding into its brain, which would be quicker but likely not instantaneous and possibly painful (excruciating headache).

We’ve finished with effectiveness and humaneness — only the “yuck” factor remains. I know, it feels like we’ve already hit on this topic. There likely is a more refined term for this, like “aesthetics”, but that doesn’t seem to fit, in my mind. Almost all the methods, except poison, involve handling the live or deceased mouse. There really is no getting around this. And decisions about precisely how you dispose of the body are required. Does it simply get tossed, uncovered into the garbage can in the garage? Or, in the kitchen garbage in a plastic bag? Or sealed first in its own wrapping of some sort, like a death shroud? Or perhaps tossed into the woods to be recycled more quickly into useful nutrients for other creatures? Is a short prayer indicated? I don’t have answers for you but only point out decisions will need to be made. Mouse poison offers a solution to this issue but also raises a problem.

Having no domestic pets (cat owners I’m sure will testify to their solution but I’m not a cat lover) and no toddlers visiting often, I’ve used poison for about three years. Prior to that time, in the country, a large black snake that lived under my porch effectively handled my mouse issue. This is yet another story about country living I’ll save for later. Poison seems to work. The mice disappear. Occasionally, I’ll find their bodies in the basement but more often than not, I never see a carcass. But, sometimes, they pay me back by generating an odor emanating from a corner of our bedroom for a few days. There’s really no way to circumvent the “yuck” factor.

Getting back to my mouse crunching on poison near my fireplace, I’ll remind you I proposed his thoughts to be that of contentment, at least over the short term. The long term is another question. But beyond serving as a subject for this article, I’m also wondering if his perception of safety and warmth near my fireplace, chewing the poison that shortly will kill him, is a metaphor of some sort — like for the smartphone maybe.

David Macpherson

David Macpherson is a recently retired physician living in Upper Burrell, Pennsylvania.

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