First... there was a mouse.
Yes, it's true, We'd bought an old house in the country, and anyone crazy enough to do such a thing should expect country things like mice, right? Well, we were of exactly the same mind, and at first, having a mouse just seemed to be one of many quaint, adorable things about country life.
In fact, as I recall we handled our initial contact with a good deal of humor: "Look what the little fellow put in your boots, honey! Why, he’s taken dog food from the bin, crawled all the way up the side of the boot and dropped it in.... like a busy squirrel!”
In short, we were the worst sort of city slickers. We brought with us all those city sensibilities about “being kind to animals,” and the like. After all, I’d had a cage full of pet mice when I was young. I just adored mice.
“We’ll just buy some air-tight containers and seal up our food good and tight, and the little guy will give up and move to somebody else's pantry,” we said. “Yes, that’s the humane way to handle things. No mouse trap, no, no. That would be cruel.”
And our neighbors smiled and laughed, Heh-heh-heh.
Then the mouse showed us he could do a really neat trick - better than taking dog food to the top of tall work-boots; why, this little fellow could actually nibble through air-tight lids!
"Wow," we said. "Imagine that!" So we decided to try to confuse him by re-arranging the pantry.
Nope. He continued to leave his eensy-weensy little Lincoln Logs all over the shelves — just to show us he had caught on to our little game of “Hide the Food.” And he continued to patiently collect the dry dog food into my husband's work boots.
I laughed and said, “Look, hon, I’ll bet he thinks after he’s filled these up, he can just walk out of here in them,” but my husband’s sense of humor had begun to wane.
We soon bought a clamp-lid, thick-sided bucket for the dog food and brought the work-boot merriment to an end.
Well, it was not soon enough.
This mouse had learned what sort of pushovers we were. And the first thing mice do when they find they have the run of the house is... run all over the house.
That’s when we found out this was not one mouse at all. A large brown mouse ran across the living room floor one evening. A medium sized mouse did it again the next night. The next night a very fast and very small mouse ran around the edge of the kitchen counter as I was making dinner. I could swear it stopped, put it’s little paws up to its ears, and said, “Phhhhft!” before skittering down behind the refrigerator.
Meanwhile, in the great outdoors, my husband found a snake in our garden shed. A nice, long black snake. Harmless, but, hey, it was still a snake. So it needed to be gotten rid of, right?
But while chatting with the neighbors that weekend, my husband found, to his surprise, our snake was a highly-coveted prize.
"So you're saying you don't want your snake?" my neighbor asked.
"Why should I want my snake?"
"Takes care of mice and garden rodents."
"Oh, oh. Well, we don't have a garden yet."
"You saying you'd give up your snake."
My husband hesitated. "Well... yeah."
"Can I have it?"
Our neighbor, who had a shed that needed rodent control, came over that very afternoon and hauled away our three foot long black snake. He was pleased as punch.
This whole incident was just another in a series of difficult concepts for us. Snakes: good. Mice: bad. What was the world coming to?
Then came the day I was doing my son’s laundry. I pulled out one shirt and then another from the clothes drier and they all had these odd reddish-brown spots on them. Did he have a pen in his pocket I hadn’t seen? What’s going on?
I reached in for the next shirt and lay hold of a motley, sort of furry little ball that I took out and examined, and...
That's when we doubled up on the plastic containers.
Hey, it was magic!
Problem solved. No more food taken. No more miniature Lincoln logs. Our cereal was safe once more! We congratulated ourselves. “They’ve moved on!” my husband said. “No more mice in the dry clothes!” I said.
That's when we began to hear them in the walls.
Yes. They had taken to eating our plaster. As we soon learned, the plaster walls of an old house can be a veritable retirement village for small rodents.
"Honey, could you hit that wall, again? I'm trying to eat breakfast, here..."
And then the dishwasher broke. Only, it didn't break; it was vandalized... by a group of vindictive, plaster-fed mice. Perhaps in retaliation for the guy they lost in that nasty dryer incident - we'll never know - but they actually ate part of the rubber hose that feeds water to the washing machine, et voila! Flooded kitchen.
We mopped up. Called in a repair guy. "What can possibly be the problem," we asked; "This machine is brand new!"
"Heh-heh-heh" said the repairman. "See this hose? They ate right through it."
“Well, I don’t see it very often — like once in twenty years, maybe — but every once in a while mice take a liking to rubber. Yep. Definitely mice.”
"You don't say," I said.
This little interview marked a turning point in our lives: that moment we abandoned our sweet suburban attitudes and began to go for the tiny jugulars.
We bought mousetraps and cheese... in bulk.
The mouse’s response was to pat each other on the back and say, “Look! It worked! They’ve started feeding us again!”
Cheese gone. Traps empty.
One of our neighbors suggested peanut butter in the traps. And we actually caught one! Hurrah! Grotesque, yes, but uniquely satisfying.
We encouraged each other - our trials would soon be over. We were going country.
Days went by. Weeks. The peanut butter required constant refreshing, and no more takers.
After a month of this, it occurred to us the mouse we caught might have been the village idiot.
We finally tried poison. "Oh, puh-leeze," said the cunning little country mice.
Next we gave those new-fangled sticky triangle tents a try.
Only one of their little brown legion was dumb enough to walk into it, and he knocked off half the cans in the pantry in his successful bid to free his snoot from the goo. Of course he made it out alive. He was probably a teenager whose buddies dared him to run through it, and we all know teenagers never suffer the proper consequences for their actions.
It seems to me it was around this time my husband and I finally learned the lesson the country was trying to teach us: in the realm of destructive arts, there is only one thing more effective than human technology and that’s nature itself.
Since we’d been so short-sighted as to give away our fine black snake, we got for ourselves the most efficient, reliable mousetrap nature can make: a cat.
I’ll admit a cat once meant no more to me than a lap warmer with an attitude, but the term "Mouser" brought a new appreciation for the species. "Self-cleaning — low maintenance — never needs sharpening.” We had a great deal of respect for Meow-Meow's natural talents (since you asked, my son named him), and the cat was a valued employee. In fact, I would go as far as to say he became a member of the family.
I know that in the city, felines are often de-clawed for the sake of precious furniture, but country-folk prefer, "Our home is mouse-less" to "Our home was recently featured in Architectural Digest."
We lived in that fine old house for 30 years, and while there we were the death of many, many mice. We also changed from linear-thinking yuppies to open-minded pragmatists. Folks out with an appreciation for the concept of live and let live that city-folks could use more of, but it comes with its own little sanity clause: “Just as long as you stay out of my pantry.”
Furthermore, learning to let nature fight nature has led me to reassess human nature, too.
For example, I’ve decided the best way to keep developers at bay is to encourage them to sue each other for economic hardship due to reckless zoning approvals. See how easy that was?
And, in closing, for the record we really were sorry about the mouse that somehow got himself into the laundry basket between the wet and dry loads and tumbled, as it were, to his death amongst our son's wear-ables.
But we learned something from that experience as well.
Mouse blood will wash right out in the very next load.
Meredith Bean McMath is a prize-winning playwright, award-winning historian, stage director, speaker and former Managing Director of Run Rabbit Run Productions, Inc.