I am not a person who is great at absolute thinking. Making decisions can stymie me and trap me in limbo. So I have to find questions to ask myself to guide me out of that place of inertia. One of the most useful questions I fall back on, especially when I want to allow a moral dimension I might be missing to become clear is to ask: “is this really necessary?” Not in the abstract or absolute, but right in the moment of the situation I am trying to decide about.
I realize for many people being an ethical vegan is an absolute, but in my case my ethics have emerged over time, and are still emerging, situation by situation. So I ask the question “is this really necessary?” in an effort to become more aware.
Five years ago when my golden retriever was dying, much to her own dismay, she could not get up easily, and so had to abandon her naps on the back porch crushed up against the screen door. It was late summer. Apparently, unbeknownst to me, now that I was also cat-less, her regular naps at this location made her a huge door plug, effectively sealing any small gaps that mice might slide under, as they scrambled to settle themselves for the winter months.
The first time I saw one enter and scramble back behind the dryer in the kitchen I was so blinded by the exhaustion of my vigil with the dog that I couldn’t process what had happened. My yard had been visited by a few wild bunnies that summer, who hid in the raspberries and nibbled here and there on edges of kale or peas. One was curious enough about those of us living in the house that it would come up and listen under the huge old rose that backs itself into the porch slab, and then I would see it bound across the yard as I opened the door and stepped out. It would make me laugh to think of it eavesdropping. Early that Spring I had found a tiny wreath of hairless baby bunnies dead out in the herb garden. Was it possible the owl that sometimes roosted in the huge evergreens next door had picked their mother off? I decided to bury them. They were so small they could be scooped up into the shovel all at once. So my first bleary thought was, “are there new baby bunnies? Did one just come into the house?”
Of course it wasn’t a bunny. It was a mouse. And then another. And possibly another. Or maybe just the same mouse coming in and out. I had to forget about it until the dog died. Which she did one late August evening, at home, in my arms. My college aged neighbors came over and helped me wrap her up in a quilt for the night. My veterinary friend came the next morning to bring her to be cremated. We all cried. I was in a daze of grief.
And I was alone, without a companion animal. Or was I? In the days (and nights) that followed, it became increasingly clear I was not alone. And that I had to do something about the mouse/mice.
At this point I had been eating no animal products for over a year, except for the occasional flirtation with fish oil capsules, which come highly recommended on the Swank web site for MS. But for me they only seemed to promote the inflammatory response, so I had stopped them, and fallen back on my old favorite, ground flax (which in his book Dr. Swank recommends it for those who can’t tolerate cod live oil, only he calls it linseed oil, which is another name for flax).
When faced with what to do about the mice, I fell back on my standard line of ethical questioning. It was necessary to get them out of the house, but was it necessary to kill them in order to accomplish it? I didn’t think so. I looked on the internet and found there were many ways to catch mice, and a lot of them didn’t involve murdering them in the process. The funniest one had something to do with getting a mouse into a tumbler of whiskey so that it passed out drunk. On a less hilarious level, I discovered there were a number of live traps that could be purchased.
Armed with this knowledge, I enlisted a friend who helps me with errands to help me find such things. Even in we-love-to-hunt-everything-Idaho, there were two or three options available at stores for live traps. I started with a simple plexiglass rectangle that had a single door opening. You pushed in some bait to the other end, and the mouse would be able to push through the door toward the treat, but then not be able to get out.
At first my mind went right to the stereotype of the mouse with a piece of cheese, so I bummed a small bit off the boys across the street. And put the trap near where they had entered by the back door. No dice. Or mice, either.
One of my next door neighbors at the time was a wildlife major and she said that the favorite bait of any rodent turns out to be peanut butter and oatmeal mixed together. So I didn’t have to worry about buying or borrowing cheese anymore to attract the mouse. (I continued to refer to it in the singular, since that was more doable for me. One mouse at a time.)
The mouse wanted in to the antique pie-save in the dining room which is essentially my pantry. I would hope it was gone and then hear it, waking me from a nap or in the wee hours of the morning. Scritch schritch. I began to want to learn to think like a mouse, because I knew that was the way I could catch it.
At this same time of year the cedar chest in my dining room is covered with cardboard boxes filled with pears from my tree ripening in single file on beds of news sheet. I also had a toaster on this cedar chest, which has been covered by yet another cardboard box of pears. One afternoon I heard the mouse making its way along the edge of these boxes. I put on my best Jane Goodall stillness and listening and slowly crept closer to the cedar chest. Gingerly, I lifted a box off the toaster, half expecting to see one behind it. Instead, there were a pair of beady black eyes looking right up at me from one of the toaster slots. It was like the scene in ET when little Drew Barrymore and ET see each other for the first time. I screamed, and if the mouse could have screamed, it would have been screaming. By the time I slammed the cardboard box back down on the toaster, it was long gone.
But I didn’t know that. I carried the whole thing out to the barn and shook it, only to find that, of course, no mouse came tumbling out. So I was back to square one.
A pattern began to emerge. My close Jane Goodall listening had taught me that the mice like to run along the backs of things. Tunnels made against the wall, or between things. So, thinking like a mouse, I reasoned that if I placed one of these peanut butter oatmeal laden live traps in one of these virtual “mouse tunnels” I might get lucky. And I did.
I caught mouse number one, probably about three or four in the morning. It was hard to sleep after that. I felt sorry for it stuck in the trap. Soon after sunrise, I put my gardening gloves on, put the whole trap in a paper bag, and walked down to the high grass on the edge of a ball field about a block away. I shook the trap and the mouse came out. But instead of running away, it just sat there and looked at me.
“Well, go on!!” I said to it. “Go find your friends. Just don’t come back to my house.”
I thought that was that. But later I learned that it wasn’t. Mice let out too close to the house can return. Either this one did, or I had more than one mouse.
Mouse number two got caught in a different design of live trap I’d set in the drawer at the bottom of the oven. This time I wasn’t going to take any chances. I had asked my neighbors if they’d help me take the mouse farther away from my house than I could walk. One of them, who loved animals, and had carried my golden retriever back into the house when she couldn’t walk, had a motorcycle. He said he’d be glad to help. When I saw the mouse was caught in the trap, I asked if he’d come over and pick the whole thing up and take it with him, since I was afraid I might accidentally set the mouse free in attempting to pick this particular trap up.
So mouse number two got a motorcycle ride out to a farm field.
But apparently, a few weeks later, it became apparent a mouse number three had been hiding upstairs and had made his way back down. He was more wary– and savvy– than mouse number one or mouse number two put together. Luckily I still had another of the plexi-glass traps, which he finally got tempted into behind the bookcase in my ktichen full of jars of beans and cookbooks in the early morning hours of a Saturday. Everyone who lives around me with a car (or a motorcycle) happened to be gone. So I thought about where I might take a mouse that was farther away than the weeds on the edge of the ball field, and interesting enough that it wouldn’t want to follow me back home.
The old grain towers that were being dismantled a couple of blocks away and across a very busy street seemed like the perfect place. The poor guy was so scared he was shitting in the trap. I walked him past where there used to be blackberries, to an old outbuilding full of crevices and probably bits of lentils and wheat. When I pushed opened the door of the trap from the outside, he shot out of it like a cannonball, hit the ground running and that was the last I saw of him.
With a little creative thinking, I was able to relocate the mice I didn’t want in the house without killing them. It wasn’t necessary. Wild mice are hardly cute little kittens or puppies or even baby bunnies or chicks. Several people I know were probably quite exasperated with me for the pains I took to allow animals they consider mere pests and carriers of disease to live, but if they did, they didn’t dare say so.
Soon after the mice were gone, I decided to adopt Romeo. We fixed the screen door so that the mice couldn’t get in. But before that, I learned they can flatten themselves like a dime to get in under a door. I learned they are repelled by peppermint essential oil. I learned that cheese isn’t the thing they like the best. And I learned a little about how they must feel. They gave me an important opportunity to experience a new version of what bravery can mean. And I learned that not only had I chosen to become vegan for my own health, but that situation by situation, I would be developing my own set of vegan ethics.