Vermin Is Always Plural

(Excerpts from my journal and further thoughts)December 20, 2002, Vesper

In the silence I hear all the odd creaks and groans of the house. I also hear the chirping of the ultra-sonic mouse eliminator. Although the active frequency is said to be well above human hearing, in the mausoleum silence I can hear it from across the house. My friend Karen who now is an urban dweller and no longer needs it gave it to me. She swore it was effective, but I hear the scurrying of little feet in the furnace area. I run over, switch on my headlamp and open the vent. Staring back at me all black eyes and big ears is a field rat. He is balanced on the thermostat wire like a bird. I close the grate not wanting to have him dart into the house. I set one of the humane traps in the bottom of the furnace. They have hair triggers and it's hard to find a place where the vibration from the furnace won't shut it prematurely. The next morning the trap will be empty, bait intact. I return to the kitchen and put the stove back in place. I've wiped down all the counters with an Ajax soaked sponge and then clear water and then windex. In addition to the health aspect of getting rid of any feces residue, I want to make sure they are clean so that any additional feces will alert me to the presence of rats. Killing them is an endless task. The trick is really to find out how they are getting in and plug the holes. Easer said than done. I finish up for the day, and make a sandwich and some tea. The burners smoke and crackle as years of accumulated dust are vaporized into a smelly cloud, but finally the glowing coils emerge like hot snakes and the water is boiling in no time. December 28, 2002, VesperIt's getting on and the mice have begun to stir. I'm sure I've blocked their access hole and am convinced that the sounds I hear are the sounds of their little teeth trying to gnaw through the 3 layers of duct tape. At last I decide, what the hell, let's open the tape door and see if we can catch a few. I place a trap either side of the stove vent pipe and remove the tape. I wait for awhile and see nothing. Finally, without the temperament of a cat, I retire to the table to write this journal. I don't hear the traps snapping even though I hear rustling in the ceiling. I go over and unplug the ultrasonic device.Finally I hear a trap shut, but as I go to look I see the mouse still up in the closet. Neither of the traps have closed. I watch him as he shuffles around and finally scents the other trap. He peers inside. He hesitatingly pushes a little more of his body forward. His hind feet are grasping the cupboard shelf as if he were a trapeze artist. I see him withdraw partially without triggering the tipping mechanism or the door. I'm amazed because I can hardly set the things up without triggering them. As he backs up I expect him to finally lunge forward and be ensnared. Instead he continues to withdraw with the peanut butter smeared, bread-bait in his mouth. I had put the peanut butter on bread because I thought it would make it easier to clean and reload. Instead it simply made it easy for these overcautious vermin to reach in and have a good meal. Up the flue he scampers, as I go to check the other trap. Its bait is missing too. I realize that putting the peanut butter in the back of the trap, adhering to the back wall is necessary to get them to go all the way in. I reset the traps and now knowing that my quarry is in this area, I retrieve the other two traps from the furnace and reload them in like manner.I set all the traps back on the shelf and step back and wait. A mouse emerges and inspects the trap. He goes almost all the way in, starts to trigger the door, but backs out in time. No catch. He scurries away. I reset the traps and wait some more. As I'm concentrating on the cabinet area, I see a small shadow scamper out from under the stove. "What the hell?" I say to myself.
He sees me and darts back from whence he came. I hear hurried frantic shuffling in the wall behind the stove and trace a zigzag pattern with my ears as I imagine this fear-stricken creature stumbling through rodent den after rodent den trying to get away from the monster downstairs.I then place two traps on the floor, and go back to my writing. Nothing happens so I decide to tape up the hole and leave it for another day. Just in case they gnaw through I leave the traps there. Sometime later, snap I hear one shut. I'm sure it's a catch because I can hear the trap rattling. I'm very pleased. I walk the mouse down to the big barn and release him. The gibbous moon is trying valiantly to poke through the clouds. It's not raining but it could be. It's a bit spooky out there in the misty night. No lights, not even my own are visible just a few hundred feet away. I'm pleased. I return to the relative warmth and dryness of my abode and continue writing. Snap. There goes the trap again. After hearing my friend Jeremy complain about enormous number of mice this year, and hypothesizing that it might be due to his wife Pam taking them all down to the same field, where the reproduce, I decide to take this one down to the old shop. It's not that far away, but it seem far enough for their swift but still tiny legs. Again I sit down to write. Another "klunk" and I've got my third one. "Vermin is always plural," I say. As I get ready to go I remember to go back and set another trap in its place. As approach I see a mouse darting away from a trap. I stand motionless. He returns. I am willing him into the trap. He pokes his head in, then pulls it out and looks right at me. "Go ahead, make my day." I think. He pokes his head in. Again he removes it and looks at me. I'm not sure if he sees me or he simply senses something out there. Finally he takes the plunge. "Klunk." I head off to the big barn with two in hand and my camera. This time I capture an image of one upon release.Four. What a haul. I can't believe it. I think the combination of mouse scent and peanut butter is making the traps even more attractive. I barely get back when bang, bang, bang, five six and seven. I only have four traps so I'm now walking briskly, nearly running to the barn to release them so I can get the traps bag and won't miss any. This is kind of fun.With the rain over, and when the furnace is quiet, the only sounds are those of the house creaking and what imagine the pitter patter of tiny feet. I never really understood the import of "not a creature was stirring not even a mouse." Now I know. Christmas Eve must have been eerily silent.It's now 1am. In a few hours I will get up and drive to Vancouver with a couple of stops. Maybe my first chore will be releasing 4 mice..December 29, 2002, Vesper
(Continued)…I have not laid my head down more than 15 minutes, when there is another Klunk. Now I have to shake off the first stages of sleep and dislodge myself from the warmth of my sleeping bag. I click on my headlamp and pointing my head and thus the beam of light at the 4 traps, I discover the one that is closed. I pick it up and feel the minuscule added heft. There is no way I'm getting dressed and going down to the barn, so I simply open the back door, open the trap gate and out peaks the familiar mouse head. After a brief look around away he scampers going right to the lip of the deck and straight down the post as if he'd traveled that route a thousand times.Back to bed. Klunk, Klunk. Again I flick on my headlamp and repeat the exercise. I open the trap outside the back door, but all I see is a tail. I think he is still inside eating the peanut butter. I have to shake him loose.Back to bed. Klunk, Klunk. Klunk, Klunk. Klunk. Between 2:00am and 3:30 or so the scene repeats itself 9 more times. Eighteen in total. One diminutive little fellow, more diminutive than the rest, pokes his head out of the trap but is reluctant to flee. I wave my hand over him in a shooing motion and he races to the edge of the deck and leaps off into the night, spread-eagled like a frog jumping into a pool of ink.

After 3:30 I don't think I would have had the energy to wake up, and in any case in the morning the traps are empty. I am hopeful that this is a sign that I've evicted a fair number of the squatters. I leave the next morning relieved but exhausted. I am leaving on another stunning day. The sun is pouring into the mobile, and the sky is clearing over head. Puffs of water vapor are rising off the valley floor and I soak up the heat of the solar radiation.

June 3, 2003, Vesper Lane
(After my final move to Oregon)

I got ready for bed in the usual way. Brushed my teeth, filled the traps with fresh peanut butter, and filled the hamster cage with fresh bedding. By morning I had a dozen mice rounded up and wrote the following emailHow many mice can you count in this photo? I count 12. But then I was there (here actually)

So far I've observed that mice wake up and forage promptly at midnight (my bedtime). They like to be caught individually, approximately 20 minutes apart or just prior to deep REM sleep. It's as if they all look around and say, "hey, where'd Charlie go? Somebody go look or him." "Hey, where did Sophie go? Somebody go look for her." "Hey..."Mice don't like the close confines of a humane trap, but placed in a clear hamster container (kindly left behind by the last human occupants) they will snuggle up together and go to sleep. Now I know where the expression "sleeping head to tail" came from.Apparently mice don't exude any scent of fear while in the trap or at least not one that is stronger than the scent of peanut butter, because the next mouse will happily enter the same trap. In fact, they seem to prefer a used trap. They will continue to sleep even after you turn the container over and try to dump them out into a nearby barn. There are an infinite number of them. About 650,000 would fit into one Volkswagen Beetle.From the Oregon home front MarcPS. My cat is home sharpening his one good fang. I don't think he knows how to operate a humane trap.PSS. They aren't on a bed of lettuce, but some green cocktail napkins.I had zero mice in the trap last night so it was a pretty good nights sleep. Tonight while pulling up the carpet I saw one, but I'm not sure where he went. And earlier I had heard some in the ceiling, so I know it's not over. Part of my agenda for this trip is to get under the house and plug some holes. I'm pretty sure they are coming up through the seam in the two halves of the home and then going right up to nest in the ceiling. Pretty convenient system.June 15, 2003Last night Fang caught his first mouse after I went to bed. I saw it hanging from his jaw when I shined the flashlight on him. I think he later lost track of it when he likely put it down to play with it. He won't make that mistake again. If anything, I think the abundance of cat hair and his howling at night will be a good deterrent to the mice. June 18, 2003

Last night Fang caught another mouse. Or maybe it was the same one he caught the other night but lost. This time the drama played out in front of my headlamp as I lay in bed and Fang trotted in with the mouse hanging from his jaw in the way mother cats carry their kittens. He deposited it on the floor in front of me and what ensued was a spirited struggle for life over death. The mouse feigned death, sprinted, flopped, dodged, and scrambled for safe haven. Fang was focused, and confident. He could have delivered the coup de grace at any moment, but it was clear that he wanted some sport out of it first. All those days of chasing the wad of paper under the kitchen table was put to good use as he shepherded the mouse between the chair legs. The mouse darted under the sofa on which I lay and he would have done better to stay there. As he made a dash for it, Fang picked him up in his jaw and trotted off to more open ground.

I felt a bit guilty about possibly eliminating even the slim sporting chance the mouse had by illuminating him and probably blinding him with my headlamp while Fang chased him. Following him around like an LA police helicopter, with Fang my all black, one-cat SWAT team. Later I awoke to here lapping sounds from the toilet. I thought Fang was drinking from the bowl. A problem because it had catchment water that I had laced with Pine-sol to keep mosquitoes from breeding. I jumped up, switched on my headlamp and entered the bathroom. There I found not Fang lapping, but a very wet mouse doing laps in a bucket of water adjacent to the toilet. I ran and got the hamster trap holding pen. It has a turret like dead-end tube. I withdrew the tube and placed it in the water tangent to the mouse's direction of travel. In it scrambled and I replaced the turret in the cage. Unfortunately he died in captivity. Likely he was poisoned from cleaning himself off. Or maybe he was just exhausted and dehydrated. Of the 49 mice I've caught, 3 have died in captivity. Despite the fierce struggle for life with Fang they seem otherwise fragile creatures. Epilog (for now)Thus far Fang and I have caught nearly 60 mice inside the house. Since we moved here, I have seven confirmed captures; Fang four confirmed kills. Of my 50+, four have died in captivity. All of Fangs die in captivity. In fact all he leaves is the tail, a small red spot on the floor and one internal organ which I can't identify, but I suppose it's the liver. From all this I've learned how difficult it is to hunt something, but how easy it is to trap it. This experience is mirrored around here on a larger scale with few who have elk or deer tags actually bagging anything. No wonder trapping is largely illegal. The loss of about 8% of the mice while kept overnight doesn't weigh too heavily on me, but I do know that I have more vivid memories of those 4 than of the 50 I freed. 8% can be a big number even if it's just collateral damage.Lately the mice have returned for the winter. I've even found mouse droppings in Fang's food bowl. What kind of a cat can't catch mice that are sitting right in his food dish? What kind of self-respecting cat lets mice eat his food? Maybe that's why he likes to eat them. They taste like Purina Deli-Mix. But really Fang is hibernating. He does not like the cold, the wet, or the wilderness much. If he could speak, I imagine him saying, "Feral? Feral? I don't have a feral bone in my body. Hey, could you turn the heat up a notch."

And so it goes. The house decays and the mice exploit its every vulnerability faster than I can patch it up. Even in the best case only a 1/8" sheet of paneling separates me from the vermin. Still, I suppose they offer some insulation being in the walls, and the occasional amusement for Fang.

Marc Auerbach
November 28, 2003