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The War of the Rodents, Part II:
Of Mice and Women

The Retired

"Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door."…
Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Build a better mousetrap and you'll catch better mice." …
George Gobel

The War of the Rodents goes on. The groundhogs described in last month's article appear to have gone on vacation to the beach or the mountains (they didn't say which), but still my wife and I have had no respite. We feel like the proverbial bear surrounded by a pack of baiting dogs of various descriptions; when one tormentor is disposed of, another is there to take its place. This time, it's mice.

In The Devil's Dictionary, written in the 1890s before the days of Women's Lib and Political Correctness, Ambrose Bierce defined a mouse as "a small animal that strews its path with fainting women." My wife is made of sterner stuff; as far as I know, she has never fainted at the sight of a mouse. However, she does jump remarkably high when she encounters one unexpectedly; Guinness apparently does not keep records for the standing high jump by women of her age and general dimensions, with hip replacements, but if they did she would be competitive. And while she does not utter the classic "EEK!" of comic strips, her leaps are accompanied by uninhibited vocalizations; those that are printable do not conform easily to phonetic spelling, but they have been detected by untrained listeners over a block away. She does not like mice.

It was no surprise that the old house we used to live in had mice. It was built before 1890, back when they made foundations of field stone and there was no insulation in the walls. There were plenty of cracks through which mice could enter, and they did so every fall when it turned cold. Most of them had the good sense to stay in the basement where it was warm, or to follow pipes and electric wires into the spaces between the inner and outer walls, where we often heard them running about. They usually had the courtesy to leave when spring came; however, there were always a few that wandered into our living space, so we accumulated a collection of mousetraps and kept the population within tolerable limits.

When we moved into our new house, my wife assumed she would live happily ever after in a mouse-free zone, and the traps were packed away in a shoe box. However, her hopes proved to be based on idealism instead of reality. The foundation of the house was satisfactorily mouse-proof, but when cold weather came the mice simply moved into the garage, which was open on fall days when I was working in the yard. Some of them set up housekeeping there, feasting happily on bird seed and gnawing into boxes of cereal for dessert. Others, showing greater initiative, waited until someone forgot to close the door that leads into the washroom, and brazenly waltzed into the house. So the old pattern was re-established; each fall there comes an evening when a small gray shadow flashes along the baseboard in the TV room. In one or two instances the mouse has been frightened to death by the ensuing shriek from the corner where my wife's chair is located, but usually I am dispatched to the basement to fetch the box of traps.

Originally the traps in our shoe box were made by the Victor company; they were of sturdy construction, with strong springs and a release mechanism that could be adjusted to hair-trigger sensitivity. But even well-made machinery eventually wears out. Victor still makes mousetraps, but in recent times the market has been flooded with cheaper models imported from some country where the mice are a lot clumsier and stupider. My wife was not familiar with the Better Mousetrap Principle of economics; she tended to shop on the theory that if you've seen one mousetrap, you've seen them all, so when an old trap wore out it was usually replaced by the cheapest one available. This resulted in problems.

The mice arrived on schedule last fall, but when spring came they didn't leave as usual… perhaps it was too wet outside, or maybe they saw a program about climate change while exploring the TV room… so I hauled out the shoe box again. Only a couple of the old Victor traps were left, and they were getting stiff and rusty, so I decided to give the mice a special treat and set out the new ones. Following the traditional method that has been handed down for generations, I baited them with cheese and placed them along the baseboards, dark corners and narrow passageways where the darting shadows had been seen. The next morning the traps were still un-sprung, but the cheese was gone from several of them. I didn't have time to re-set them just then, and over the next few days, the rest of the cheese disappeared. I re-set the traps, but found the catch mechanism was not adjustable; if I set the release wire too close to the edge, the trap went off when I set it down on the floor. After catching my fingers a few times, I set the traps as before. The results were the same; the cheese disappeared. Only one mouse was caught; it got careless and stepped on an empty trap.

The only solution was to clean up the old Victors, and the result was gratifying. The mouse population quickly went into decline. Most of the victims were the common house mouse, whose ancestors hitch-hiked to America with the first European settlers; it has gray fur and a smallish head that gives it a sneaky, untrustworthy appearance. But some were the native white-footed mouse, a somewhat larger species, colored brown above and white below, with a large head and an alert, quizzical expression on its face. As George Gobel predicted, it is a better mouse; it is cute enough to make a nice pet, although it will be some time before my wife is persuaded to adopt one.

At the moment, the mouse population has been reduced to an acceptable level, but the war goes on; they will never be exterminated completely. Well-meaning friends have suggested that we try biological warfare and get a cat, but I have been down that road and it doesn't work. Our daughter had one when we lived in the old house; it caught mice and played with them, but usually left their carcasses under the furniture where we didn't find them until they began to smell. Eventually the cat got old and lazy, and finally went senile; it sat on the windowsill above the kitchen sink and regularly dozed off and fell into the dishwater. In addition to the odor and bother of tending a litter-box, the veterinary bills were exceeding what a professional exterminator would have cost. So my wife found a better solution: she recently presented me with a package of new Victor traps. Technology may yet win the war.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith