My wife, Shelly, and I have always had animals, across the four decades that we have been together—nothing exotic, cats and dogs (a lot of each) and one turtle that died shortly after we got it from a pet store. This poor creature departed in reptilian silence; I believe we had placed its terrarium too close to a window—the glass and hot sun. I still think, 25 years later, of our little daughter's school essay that began, "My poor sweet innocent turtle is dead." If I were not a staunch atheist, I would worry about the manner in which this turtle will eventually feature on my Judgment Day. If I am misguided, and something great and eternal does in fact tinker with my invisible circuitry, what will I say to rationalize my carelessness? I wonder if I’ll also be asked about the mice.
We have always had mice in our house—notably, in the silverware drawer that our rodents chose to employ as the planning room for their operations. Mice are secretive on principle—we never see them in the act of living their lives. We only know about mice from the droppings they leave in the drawer and the occasional mutilated corpse we find. Cats are more than an extension of human domination and cruelty—anthropologists have long recognized that rodent control was a foundation of early civilization, enabling societies to store grain. With factory farming and industrial poisons, kitties have become mere adjuncts to technology. Cats seem unfazed about being marginalized—they remain faithful to atavistic reflexes.
Someone observed that mice are nature's Snickers bars, and I imagine that almost every moment of a mouse's life must be consumed with vigilant anticipation. They move about in slow motion while a manic assortment of warp-speed jaws, talons and claws zoom across a famished world. Mice surely know that they inhabit borrowed time, that existence is only a race to mate and create more mini-Snickers bars before something impossibly large, hungry and heartless imposes itself.
But the misery of mice in the food-chain hierarchy is not even the whole story, for mice are part of our family with a common ancestor a mere hundred million years ago. They share enough of the same genetic substance with human beings to make them the favorite object of torture for medical research. Thus, the same poor species serves concurrently as nature's preferred snack and humanity’s experimental subject. How many of my medicines have been studied in the autopsied tissues of mice? A personal intersection took place right in our kitchen. This is not an abstract form of collective guilt—anyone who has ever needed a lifesaving antibiotic has an unresolved moral debt to mice.
Shelly and I are vegetarians at war with Mouse Nation over the territory of our silverware drawer, and yet repulsed by the violent solutions typically employed against the earth's most tortured mammal. Poisons, neck-snapping traps, and glue paper are out of the question. Our solution had been a plastic, "humane" mouse trap, baited with a peanut and placed in the closed drawer that, because of our revulsion toward droppings, has been emptied of knives, forks and spoons. When the trap closes, there is a great battle between plastic technology and the eternal Darwinian will— the rodent thrashes with all its might. Sometimes we are awoken in the early morning by these fierce struggles. The plastic mouse trap is literally hurled back and forth inside the drawer from the captured fury within. Usually the trap fails and the mouse escapes into a system of cavities and small passageways—the infrastructure of rodent property rights. It is only because of mice that we have a mental construct regarding the internal spaces of our house.
But occasionally these "humane" traps prevail, and we are presented with a closed chamber containing the spent, resigned, terrified contents. You can feel the trembling warmth inside when you hold the trap. This is where moral uncertainty unfurls, enormous and mocking. What do we do with the mouse in our custody? It is a question that, to me, resembles all of the impossible forked paths that life inflicts. So many of us surrender to the machine—selling things that are worthless, scribbling out reams of obligatory paper-work, teaching children according to a state-mandated curriculum, pleasing the boss who can cut our lifeline on a whim; few of us build cabins at Walden Pond. Trapping and releasing mice is an exercise of pseudo-agency. My choices are measured against the enormity of cosmic indifference.
With the lives of mice completely dependent on my judgment, I had distilled all my wisdom into two solutions—I either released the mouse in a nearby park, by a trash receptacle to increase nutritional opportunities, or I let the mouse free by the dumpster of a mini mart. I realize that both of these options are lazy and flawed, and that, after having used these strategies dozens of times, there is no certainty that a single one of my mice have benefited from my alleged good intentions. In fact, there may be merit to the argument that each mouse's wellbeing is being sacrificed for my own egotistical benefit. It may be that a mouse which is killed instantly by a lethal trap is more fortunate than one that freezes in the park, or is torn to pieces by a patrolling hawk or eagle. The ones that I deport to the neighborhood mini mart are subjected to the rodent control schemes of the food business. I may be doing nothing more than transferring a condemned prisoner to an anonymous executioner. I have even referenced the morbid euphemism of Nazi genocide—Shelly is the daughter of Holocaust survivors—and I will say that a transport to the east is leaving, as I take my trapped mouse to be “set free” in the park.
I owe it to Shelly that we have now forged a third option, the creation of a mouse nirvana, a structure that we might proudly cite on judgment day. She simply purchased a mouse cage at the local pet store, covered the cage floor with cedar shavings, and planned to place a dish in the center with morsels of bread, smudges of peanut butter, bits of banana and other fruits. The cage came equipped with an exercise wheel and a water dispenser. We were not looking for nominal penance, but seeking five Michelin Mouse stars.
All we needed was a guest to redeem our moral stature. That took only a few days, and in the wee hours of a Thursday morning we were startled by the ruckus coming from our silverware drawer. Soon, with the closed mouse trap clutched preciously in my hand, we were puttering about the kitchen carefully selecting a rodent meal worthy of a grand opening. Both of our cats hovered about excitedly, and we alternately shooed them away while peering into the fridge to grab this or that tidbit. We bickered about the proper thickness to slice an apple for a mouse. Shelly is often quite determined about fine details, and our decades together have been punctuated with skirmishes over small matters. Why not just toss an entire apple into the cage, I argued. A whole apple is way too much for one mouse, she replied, and predictably added, why do things the wrong way when it takes so little effort to do them right?
I sliced the apple into nearly transparent sheets, and carefully placed them next to similar offerings of carrot and strawberry. The contract between "mice and men" is one of the most unlikely documents in creation—both rodents and hairless apes have formulated a standoff whereby an industrial bounty of poison pellets, traps and glue paper is very nearly, but not quite, able to achieve total mouse genocide. Mice are greater than capitalism, because no amount of profit can keep them from breeding just a little faster than mass produced devices can kill them. The amount of suffering that individual mice endure, in their existential misfortune, is no more comprehensible than are the numbers of atoms in the universe. Killing mice has been one of the driving forces of human existence—as fundamental as building roads, sucking oil out of the ground or creating technology. There must be some mechanism in the human brain that makes it difficult to curiously linger on the quality of rodent suffering.
Shelly and I unilaterally ripped up the contract—we went off grid around the issue of violence and mice. Our mouse, however, misread our intentions. It refused to leave the trap when I opened the door to place it in the cage. Shaking the trap did not work either. “Stop, you are going to injure it,” Shelly admonished, and we decided to leave the opened trap inside the cage, which we placed safely atop a tall bookcase in a space just below the ceiling. We went back to bed, only to hear a shattering crash. Our cat, Bernie (yes, named after our choice for president) had, despite weighing a solid 16 pounds, scaled seven feet of bookcase and sent both the cage and a ceramic bowl hurtling to the floor. Neither the bowl nor the cage survived the fall, but both the cat and mouse were as good as new. Bernie pawed at the humane trap and I swooped him away while Shelly deftly reconstructed the collapsed cage. This time, we placed the cage in our adult son's former room. There are no vertical limits to a cat's urge to destroy—a closed door is a minimal safeguard. I now refer to Bernie as the Zion Williamson (the 300-pound Pelican power forward with a 42-inch vertical) of cats.
We became fastidious mouse caretakers. I refreshed the water container daily, and provided ever more fancy culinary delights—avocado and hummus spread on bits of sourdough bread, grapes, fresh blueberries, and slices of mango. Shelly attended to the mouse's emotional needs. The internet informed us that male mice have outsized testicles. This gave us enough information to name our mouse—in an inspired flash of minimalism, Shelly decided to call her Miss Mousey. Surprisingly, Miss Mousey did not scurry to hide when we entered her room, but excitedly raced in her wheel when we appeared. This was not the alien connection that characterized our nexus to our turtle, but a real relationship. Shelly, ever the interspecies whisperer, often petted Miss Mousey's head, and our little mouse eagerly leaned against the wire walls of the cage to show her affection. But was that enough? Mice, we learned from online research, are social creatures, and the occasional interspecies transactions did not alter the fact—we had condemned Miss Mousey to a life sentence in solitary.
We resolved to find Miss Mousey a companion, but somehow our silverware drawer had run dry. We found no mice nor droppings for weeks and weeks. Had Miss Mousey sent a warning to her compatriots? These monsters are holding me prisoner and feeding me weird food. You must run away. Go someplace else, anywhere else! For twenty years we had never gone through a winter without an invasion of mice. Now they all had left. We were both frustrated and relieved. We would need two mouse cages to cope with the reproductive fury of our tenants. But I never imagined that our mouse infestation would let us down when all we needed was a single female mouse to make Miss Mousey's life complete.
With our pipeline to the mouse world mysteriously ruptured, we considered going to a pet store to save some poor mouse destined to be fed to a snake, and match her with our loneliest mouse. Mice do not generally benefit from random chance, but Miss Mousey, already a rodent Powerball winner, hit another jackpot. Our cat sitter, a biology student at the University of Massachusetts, works at one of the college's research laboratories, and keeps a number of retired victims of rodent research in large cages in her apartment separated by sex. Apparently, Shelly and I are not alone in the quest to atone for crimes against this innocent species. Andrea offered to take Miss Mousey and introduce her to her colony. Mice sometimes do not get along and are known to fight, but our cat sitter reported that Miss Mousey is a humble and agreeable soul. She even texted us videos of Miss Mousey cuddling and playing with her new comrades.
I should have let this happy ending stand on its own, but I had to go online for context. It is impossible to not know that there is a terrible story about research and rodents, and maybe the details don't matter—that some 110 million mice annually are tortured and executed in the name of science, just in the US alone. Numbers that are massive mean nothing. Individuals suffer, not statistics. Miss Mousey taught us that mice are responsive, excitable and friendly. They are no less sentient than we are. If a god, or a collection of them, existed, every mouse would be owed restitution, and an eternal world with no hawks, cats or humans might be the scope of apology needed to right the injustices that are codified in the laws of the biosphere.
If I believed in god it would not be necessary to trap mice and slice avocados for them. How odd that cosmic silence compels me to ask mice for forgiveness. In a creator's absence I have only confused shame—my share of the moral debt that humanity owes to mice. If mice have religion, I might be the one they pray to. And yet I let my two cats out where they hunt chipmunks and stalk birds. Inside our house, these cute pets have performed a reign of terror on mice. I sometimes think that humanity is an extension of creation—that all the cruelty written into the grand design has been tweaked, multiplied and enhanced by human institutions. But the opposite conclusion is also conceivable—that humans struggle to mitigate the brutality of nature. Still, there is the matter of proportion—what is PETA or any animal welfare organization compared to factory farming, medical research, hunting and trapping? Miss Mousey's protection is, for Shelly and me, a bare, infinitesimal act of contrition, but not without satisfaction. Andrea recently texted us that Miss Mousey is a deer mouse that can live up to 8 years. We had believed that mice seldom exceed a lifespan of two years. That is wonderful, we agreed. We drank champagne to Miss Mousey’s long life.
We may, someday, trap other mice in our silverware drawer and create a future mouse utopia. But I have no illusions. My hypocrisy cannot be rationalized. Furthermore, we don't understand how mice feel. We know less about the subjective sensations that comprise mouse being, than we know about the internal mechanisms of black holes or neutron stars. Maybe no caged mice are happy. Maybe there is freedom and joy that mice can only know with violent death breathing in their ears. Maybe luxury and protection are human fetishes that make it impossible to comprehend the souls of mice. Despite my uncertainty, we will do what we can for the mice under our governance.