Friday, November 17, 2006

Mice Revisited.

I posted earlier about what I shall now call Mice War II. In mentioning the new mouse insurgency, I wrote that one canny little bastard traced his way around a glue trap, obviously aware that treading upon it meant a sticky death. By implication you might have assumed that his predecessors from the summer weren’t so bright. This would be an incorrect assumption.

The mice that infested my house late this spring were very smart. I first discovered those mice when I found a plastic bag of Pepperidge Farms stuffing that had been torn open, its contents scattered around my cabinet. Little black squiggles of mouse crap peppered the floor of the cabinet. I immediately did the sensible thing. I swept up, cleaned the inside of the cabinet and left a spring trap baited with peanut butter. A few weeks passed. The trap snapped the necks of no mice. I figured that it had been a fluke. The mouse responsible for the scattered stuffing had been a ranger-mouse, charged with taking the vanguard in search of food and shelter for his breathren. When I cleaned up the food, the gang decided to deploy elsewhere.

Then one night I was up late working. A grey blur flashed in the corner of my eye. I turned and saw a mouse. Uh oh. They’re still here, I thought. The next day I went to a 99 cent store and bought some glue traps and some more spring traps. I baited all of them with dried cubes of stuffing, figuring that the mice were accustomed to eating it, so they’d take the bait. I got one mouse the next night. And that was it.

Reluctantly, I hoped that it was just the one. I went back to my normal routine. The other traps remained set, just in case. They captured no mice for weeks. Then one day, I found another bag of food-stuffs scattered in my cabinet. This one was a bag of Cajun soup mix that my mom had sent me. The gauge of the plastic was much thicker than normal packaged food plastic. The bag was vacuum sealed, and had been undisturbed for over a year. The traps had not been touched.

Then it occurred to me. These mice know that food in plastic bags is safe to eat! What’s more, they know that plastic bags often contain that food.

How do they know this? According to Wikipedia, the life-span of a mouse only reaches 2 years in laboratory captivity. In the wild they don’t live much longer than 3 months. It took me seven years, as a human, to learn to tie my shoes, with multiple instructors. Do other mice communicate this information to them? Are there mouse survival seminars?

It reminded me of an incident that I witnessed once on the 14th street L train platform. For those who don’t live in New York City, the L train is the crappy subway that runs between North Brooklyn and the East Village in Manhattan. For most of the past several years the MTA has been “upgrading” it. What this meant was that almost every night after 10, train service was cut in half. Rather than run trains on two tracks, in each direction, train service went to one track exclusively at that hour. One night I reached the subway station a few minutes after it had gone to single-track service. And so I was stuck waiting a half hour for my train.

At the First Ave station you can look across the tracks to the opposite platform. That evening, someone had dropped a large order of McDonald’s French fries on the platform just before it went to single track service. The fries, their red cardboard container and the ketchup sat there directly opposite from where I stood. Because it was a variance in the environment, my eye naturally fell on the pile of fries while I stared into space. Then a rat popped out of the drain hole on the wall behind the fries. I watched it.

The rat meandered around the platform a bit, then homed-in on the fries. It gathered up a bundle of them and crawled back into the drain hole. A few moments later, it popped out of the hole and collected some more fries. I imagined that it was bringing food home to a little rat family. Somehow this was a nice, warm image, like a Norman Rockwell picture, but with rats. The rat made this trip several times, until it had gathered all the fries. I continued staring into space. That’s when the frightening thing happened.

The rat came back for the ketchup.

It emerged from the hole and picked up the sealed plastic envelope of ketchup. Then it tried to re-enter the hole, but because the envelope was sealed, it would not collapse to a width that would fit in the hole. The rat dropped the envelope, and then picked it up again, trying to force the envelope cross-ways into the hole. I turned to the man standing next to me.

“Are you seeing this?” I said.

He looked straight ahead. “Yeah, I am. It’s kinda scary.”

We watched the rat struggle awkwardly with the ketchup for a bit. After a few tries he seemed to figure out that the ketchup would fit into the hole if he pushed it in lengthwise, rather than crosswise. Then he disappeared, off to feast on his fries with ketchup.

So this incident was on my mind when I realized that the mice were specifically searching for food safely protected in plastic bags. “What else do they know?” I said to myself.

In the weeks that followed, I outsmarted the mice, just barely. I washed and then rebaited all the spring traps with chocolate, bits of an Easter Bunny that had been in my freezer for moths. The temptation of chocolate was too strong. Eleven mice succumbed to it. Though I left baited traps in place, I captured none and saw none until now. Looking back, many of the mice were clearly young. Perhaps they merely ignored the wisdom of their elders.

Now I am at a loss for what to do next. These new mice obviously know that a taste of chocolate is a death sentence. They surely know that peanut butter is bad news too. Cheese hasn’t worked as mouse bait since 1957. Should I go exotic? Tehini? Vegemite? I guess I’ll have to learn.

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