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.
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.