War has been declared in Coddington, and it’s not going well. Thus far we’re clearly on the losing side. The mice are winning hands — or paws — down, and it’s not very pretty. The major theatre of operations is our garage, but recently, it looks like the enemy has opened a second front in the attic.
I give you fair warning: you may prefer not to read any further. What follows is a sad report from a war’s front lines, full of bile and bluster, regret and recrimination, resentment and resolve. It’s a cautionary tale about the realities of winter in rural Maine from a reluctant war correspondent who, just a while ago in happier times, threw whatever caution he might once have had to the summer winds of naïveté.
Let me say at the outset that we chose to live on Douglas Point in part because we knew we would be living among abundant wildlife. A wildcat, probably a Canadian lynx, was spotted at the end of our road last week. We flush ruffed grouse almost every time we go on our daily walk through the forest. Last week, an elegant and mysterious red fox stood staring at me for some time as I blazed a nordic ski trail across our fields. A few days ago, while hiking along our neighbor’s lane, we decided it was best to turn back when we spotted fresh bear tracks going in the same direction we were headed. From the start, we’ve happily committed to live peaceably and appreciatively with the fauna that grace these parts. But I’ve drawn the line at living in close proximity to mice — mice in our cars, mice in the new-blown insulation, mice chewing the dryer vent, mice scurrying in a corner of the attic. With mice and me it is war; a war that I may have declared, but the mice, as I say, are clearly winning.
It began with the box of Kleenex™ we’ve always kept in our hybrid SUV. For a couple of days, I kept finding tissues left on the floor of the car. At first I thought this was simply another indication of the general messiness of our lives. I took longer than I should have to grasp the extent of the treachery that was going down in our garage while we slept. When I saw that a seatbelt was severed as if with scissors, I knew we were in trouble. We took the car down to the dealer in Massachusetts, who found an extensive, well-tissued mouse nest in the rear of the vehicle. They checked the engine and the electric motors, but couldn’t find any damage there. We breathed a sigh of relief — fools that we are — and paid the exorbitant bill which came to just under our car insurance deductible.
Back home, I headed straight for the order and advice desk at the local building supply store. There, a platoon of Mainers became immediately interested when I asked about the best way to deal with what I supposed were just field mice, (for all I knew at that point, I might have been dealing with squirrels, red or gray, or river rats — no need to go into the evidence now as to why those species also qualified for the suspect list). I asked the assembled panel of experts whether the thing to do was to have a heart and trap them. Everyone looked at me in polite astonishment — in Blue Hill, they’ve had long experience dealing with folks ‘from away.’ “No-o,” Karen drawled to the obvious amusement of her surrounding male colleagues, “what you want to do is, snap their little necks off!”
I bought nine neck-snapping traps and set them out for a week. I caught nothing, but continued to see and hear signs that made me certain that we were not alone. So I called a local exterminator who told me he was sorry that he couldn’t take the project on at the moment. He’d just come back from a weekend snowmobiling expedition up north where he had injured his back while searching for discarded moose antlers. (I am not making this up.) He recommended a colleague in this slatternly but necessary business who, shortly after I called him, dispatched his assistant Tim to minister to me in my distress. After making a positive identification of some droppings, Tim promised to rid us of peromyscus leucopus, the intrepid white-footed mouse.
The enemy in question is quite formidable. A cousin to the rat with sharp claws and a hairless tail, these nocturnal, fast-moving rodents are highly motivated to look for a plush billet at season’s turn, especially in a winter like this year’s with the snow coming so late that the creatures are deprived of their usual insulated refuge from the cold. Their secret weapon lies in their reproductive habits, which gives them considerable strength in numbers on the battlefield. The females get pregnant and give birth on a monthly basis. Then the males bring extra food back to the nest where a litter of four to six pups, born bald, blind and hairless, cling to their nursing mother until they’ve gained full maturity and they in turn, start reproducing — all in a matter of three weeks.
By far the most daunting thing about these creatures is their intelligence. I’ve read that they’re equipped to strategize on the spot, on the field of battle, as it were. They’re able to assess levels of risk and the possibility of success or failure in a given situation. Not just self-protective by nature, their instinct is to look out for the brood as well. It’s clear I’m up against a well-oiled military machine that bivouacs in the unfinished garage and goes on leave for R&R in my attic.
Of course, I’ve consulted with my neighbors about the fighting going on around them. It’s remarkable how little we know of the trials of others until we’ve bared our own souls and discover we’re not the only ones to have gone down this road. They’ve all had mice, and worse. A broad consensus exists across Johnson Point: wild things are fine outdoors but there’s hell to pay when they get inside, so you’ve got to get rid of the intruders as quickly as you can, using whatever means possible. At their urging I have now escalated the war, adding toxics to traps. When I visited the Northern Bay Market to secure the necessary ordinance, I noticed the shelf was fully stocked with rodent poison. I chose the brand whose packaging can only be meant to give hope to the battle-weary. Emblazoned in cheery yellow letters on the box was the company’s terse motto: “It Kills.” Making sure our beloved dog is never in harm’s way, I set out the mouse poison in four strategic battlements across the house.
Tim, the exterminator came been back ten days after setting a dozen or so of his own traps throughout the battle-zone. After tending his trap lines, he proudly showed me a single mouse. As we’ve already paid him 35% of his fee, I’m sure this carcass, when measured on a per-centimeter basis, is the most expensive animal trophy ever bagged in these parts. I feel something like Abraham Lincoln fighting a dispiriting war and having no confidence in his generals.
Nonetheless, I was surprised by the beauty of my nemesis when I saw it lying lifeless on the bed of the executioner’s truck. The tan and golden brown of the mouse’s fur contrasting with the pure white coloring of its undercoat and feet moved me quite unexpectedly. I’m told that the essayist E. B. White used to walk around his farm, located a few miles from here, carrying a pet mouse in his shirt pocket. I admire his compassion for all creatures thin and small, but, despite this momentary lapse, I really don’t share it. Ghandi, I’m not.
Two days ago the “check engine light” on the SUV began flashing brightly and I dutifully drove it over to Snow’s garage to have it investigated. They took one look and towed the car to Brewer where the experts informed me the mice, under cover of darkness, have been on maneuvers again, migrating this time to the engine compartment where they’ve built a second nest. They celebrated their campaign by eating away at the vehicle’s wiring. We’ve rented a car and await completion of negotiations between the insurance appraiser and the repair shop before repairs can begin.
This month-long campaign has become extremely costly and the mice are still on top. I’m shaken, but remain resolute. I’ll continue to prosecute this private war in hopes of establishing a perimeter that becomes the enforceable ‘rodent no-go area’ encircling this dear place. We’re told that one day the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall be as tame as the ox. Until then, I’ll settle for a happy equilibrium where all God’s creatures can find peace in the place that suits them best, where wild things keep to the wild and where I hope they’ll thrive — at the requisite distance.
Edward R. Dufresne © 2012