Wee Timorous Beastie

In the gloom of a winter morning, when I lean deep into the dark grain bin to scoop sweet feed for my cow Katika, quite often a mouse jumps in my face. I almost have a heart attack.

Yes, I have mice in the barn. Though I’m death on mice in a house, the mice that live under the tack room floor and I have co-existed peacefully for some time.

But both sides regularly get a fright. The problem is that when a mouse jumps down into the sweet feed barrel for a snack, he then cannot get out. Wild mice can jump incredible distances — I have always called them “popcorn mice.” (They are actually deer mice.) However the smooth sides of the metal barrel give them no footholds and if the grain level is low they are stuck. The mice are dark, the grain is dark, the light in the tack room is dim, I am head-down in the barrel, scooping, and suddenly a tiny frantic creature is leaping in my face and trying desperately to run up my arm.  Eek!

It’s the startle factor that jolts me. I’m not afraid of mice. And I’m sympathetic to most creatures, who are simply trying to make a living. As a little girl I was devoted to Thornton Burgess’s animal stories and the books of Robert Lawson, particularly his classic Rabbit Hill, which was set about 20 miles from my childhood home.

I find it hard to be tough on the trapped mice because to me they’re all Lawson’s Willie Fieldmouse, the intrepid youngster who falls into the water barrel…

… and is rescued by the kindly New Folks at the Big House.

I was obviously deeply affected by Willie and the good Folks.

In college, when I was backpacking around the country with the Audubon Society for two years, at least half a dozen times I stumbled upon a baby deer mouse while putting up or taking down my tent. There is nothing more helpless than an infant mouse: pink, tiny, hairless, blind, utterly defenseless. The mother and the rest of the brood would be nowhere in sight. I could never leave a tiny creature to die.

With a sigh I’d make a nest of Kleenex in my breast pocket, close to my skin for warmth. Then I would feed the little mouse drops of milk every two hours, and rub its tiny belly with a damp tissue to mimic its mother’s licking and stimulate it to evacuate. Meanwhile I’d still be hiking or attending lectures, the baby riding snug under my jacket. I generally kept them alive for about three days. No baby can survive on pasteurized low-fat milk, which was all we had on the bus. Still, I had to try.

These days when I find adult mice in my grain, I stick the barn broom in the barrel. For more than a year, when I retreated, the mice would cautiously climb on the bristles, cautiously shinny up the broomstick, cautiously jump out of the grain bin, and scatter.

But things are different now. This summer I had a mouse population explosion.

I could see it happening. First there were two mice in the barrel in the morning. Then three. Then six. Uh-oh. I imagined the invitation going out: “Great eats in the barn!” The mice were moving in. They liked the accommodations. In my mind’s ear I was uneasily hearing the chorus from H.M.S. Pinafore: “And so do his sisters and his cousins, whom he reckons up by dozens, and his aunts!”

The mice have now lost most fear of me. When I drop the broom into the grain barrel, half a dozen mice leap onto it cheerfully — while I’m still holding it. I can carry a broom-load of clinging mice right out of the tack room. In fact I’ve done this many times.

However, they’re all back the next morning. And they bring friends.

One rainy day this summer Luke, Lucy, and I removed everything and “mouse-proofed” the entire room, blocking every entrance we could see with 2×4 trim or hardware cloth. All surfaces were scrubbed. I installed a heavy bolt on the door. Surely the tack room was now a clean, impregnable fortress.

The next morning there were three mice in the grain bin. The following day, five. Soon it was as if we’d done nothing.

I was beginning to feel like one of those hapless hosts whose party guests have taken over and are destroying the house. Trails of mouse droppings criss-crossed my tack room desktop and littered the desk drawers. Mice were chewing up my terry milking cloths. A folded saddle pad stank of mouse pee. One day I was milking Katika when a mouse ran across the top of her stanchion in broad daylight.

I finally faced it. Something Had to Be Done.

I bought a package of two old-fashioned mousetraps. I don’t like killing anything but a spring-loaded mousetrap is designed to give a swift hard blow, immediately breaking the neck. Though I felt traitorous, I set the traps.

The next morning, one of the traps had disappeared. Oh, dear. This hinted at a scenario that I didn’t want to contemplate. Either the mice held a conference and, working together, carried the trap away on their shoulders, or a mouse was trapped somewhere, suffering. I was stricken. I searched for forty-five minutes, pulling all the furniture away from the walls, and found nothing. The next day I discovered the destroyed trap in the litter in Punch’s stall. The day after that, I noticed that one of the mice in the morning grain barrel had only a stub of a tail. Poor little guy.

Nevertheless I had to be sensible. I girded my loins and set the second trap. Surely it would work this time. Quick, painless death.

The next morning a mouse was heaving and jerking in the second trap. He was caught by his two hind feet. To release him I had to lift the trap, brace it with my other hand, and lift the bar against the spring, all while the tiny creature struggled frantically in terror.  I finally managed it and the mouse limped away, dragging his broken feet. I was so horrified I threw the second trap away, too.

By now I know these dozen mice so well I feel they should wear collars and tags. I say hello to Stub-tail when I find him in the oats bag, and I give the mouse with healing feet extra time to climb the broom out of the sweet feed.


Stub-tail in the oats this morning


Larry shakes his head. He thinks I’m much too soft. He doesn’t let a mouse exist in his barn. He uses traps and glue boards (glue boards! just thinking of them makes me feel sick). Of course, I am aware that I could eliminate my own mouse problem fairly simply, just by not supplying them with the broom to escape. Left in a barrel without water for three or four days, all the mice would be dead of thirst. And before that, they would have cannibalized each other in desperation. I am constitutionally unable to let that happen.

So, what to do? Mice are eating my grain, chewing my barn walls and animal supplies, and, if reports are accurate, probably carrying hantavirus (I don’t tend to worry about such things, though I do wash my hands). And meanwhile, their numbers are steadily increasing. I don’t need to have zero mice. But I do need to level the playing field.

I think a barn cat is in my near future.


11 Responses to Wee Timorous Beastie

  1. What a nice short story! Did you draw the pictures as well?

    • adkmilkmaid says:

      No, they are by the famous illustrator and children’s author, Robert Lawson, in Rabbit Hill. Thanks so much!

  2. Dumb question, do you have a lid on your feed barrel? Even a scrap of plywood helps. I don’t care for mice running up my arm, but I liked this post nonetheless. 🙂

    Our barn kitties do a pretty good job. But we do provide cat food so they stick around. I don’t mind buying feed for the cats, but I draw the line at providing for the mice.

    • adkmilkmaid says:

      Not a dumb question at all! I realize I wasn’t clear. My grain barrels are inside a bin that my father built probably fifty years ago for our family’s trash cans. The bin has a plywood top that is always closed. I have blocked the mouse holes. The mice get in anyway!

      Yes, I’ve decided I’d rather buy one bag of cat food a month than have many bags of grain defiled and mouse poop everywhere. I’ve decided am going to get a feral cat, neutered and vaccinated, free from the humane society and hope he sticks around, survives the coyotes, and even gets to be friendly.

  3. Noodles says:

    Our loft building in the Seaport in Manhattan was similarly infested with mice by a “softie” who refused to deal with the rapidly reproducing creatures. In this case, the mice in her loft rapidly spread to all the other lofts in the building. When she went away for a week to visit her family, the rest of the building went on mouse patrol in her loft as well as our own and tried to buck up the resolve of her wavering husband. Victor traps will work eventually.
    I believe that Lyme disease has come up there with the warming temperatures. Be careful, Sugar Lump.
    Love, N.

    • adkmilkmaid says:

      I’ve used Victor traps many times in houses. I don’t allow a mouse in a house. But barns… I’ve never minded the occasional mouse. However this is ridiculous. The humane society is happy to think I might provide a home for one of their feral cats.

      Yes, Lyme got here in 2004. My best dog ever, Ned, died of it in 2005 (vets here used to say not to vaccinate for it; Ned was the first dog in the region to die of Lyme complications; now everyone vaccinates). I take all precautions for rabies and tetanus, and vaccinate my animals for a host of things, but there are so many illness possibilities, I just wash my hands and get on with it.

  4. Susanna says:

    I loved this post and LOVED the picture of Stub-tail.

  5. Jo says:

    If you’re looking for a feral cat, try asking around at nearby farms. Most of the ones around our place, at least, have extra barn cats they’re willing to give away. I’d recommend getting a spayed female — male cats tend to roam around, leaving for weeks at a time. Maybe if he was neutered he’d be more home-bound, though.

    I totally understand your sympathy to mice — my own comes from ‘Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.’ How can I kill Mrs. Frisby and all her babes?

    Two years ago we had problems with opossums in the chicken coop. We captured one and trapped another, relocating them several miles down the road at an abandoned farmstead. It’s much easier to possum-proof a building than mouse-proof it, however. Good luck!

  6. Margo Nikolopoulou says:

    I always liked Jerry over Tom or Mickey Mouse over Black Pitt yet in real life i would run and scream on such encounters….
    Still been the joke of the family when some years i go i went to the cellar to fetch some wine….the wine was provided in big bottles of 10 pounds each – Italian style. I was holding one each had and was just around the corner on my way out, when my mother tried to warn me…”Don’t be afraid yet there is a mouse coming towards you…” The first bottle left my hand and broke right on spot….the other one left 5 sec later, as soon as i actually saw the mouse in question….

  7. Link says:

    I have a friend that spent $300 purchasing a designer cat. I told him that if he gave me 24 hours, I’ll bet that I could find him 300 cats for free. Of course, like you mentioned, they really need to be fixed. Otherwise they become almost as numerous as the mice!

    • adkmilkmaid says:

      Purebred animals of all kinds are a bit silly but I find I love them. If I knew more about cats, who knows — I might want a designer cat, too! But when it comes to cats, I’m easily pleased. I just want something to meow hello, purr with contentment, and wind around my ankles.

      You are right about needing neutering. There are so many thousands upon thousands of unwanted cats moldering in shelters right now, and that’s not even counting the ferals that are trapped and brought in. When I was small my parents had an unspayed cat and we children got to see the “miracle of birth” several times. I will always remember it but my own kids won’t have that experience. I’ve been on the board of an animal shelter and the numbers of cartons of dropped-off “miracle” kittens, past their cute date and now someone else’s problem to euthanize or find homes for, would stun you.
      Off my soapbox, now! 🙂

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