By W. Keith Zoroastrian
“How should I put this?” my mom said over the phone. “They were the sort of people who would recognize mouse-gnawed holes if they saw them.” She was regaling me with the tale of a mouse she had discovered a week earlier when she noticed chewed-up paper towels in her car. She hadn’t realized what was going on until a patient pointed out holes in her sweater. “I didn’t even notice the holes until I was at their house,” she said. “I was so embarrassed.”
This mouse, like all mice, was crafty. It had taken up refuge in her townhome’s garage, somehow infiltrated her car, and gnawed up anything left inside, including the sweater. My mom didn’t have the heart to set out traps, so instead she had tried to address the root cause by removing the multiple bags of half-eaten fast food from her front seat, which “apparently” could attract mice. That turned out to be insufficient. The mouse kept chewing less and less obvious attractants until, finally, my mom had removed just about everything but the seats themselves. They, too, might not have been safe if the whole saga hadn’t abruptly ended one night in a bucket of mop water. She was in her bathrobe at the time, and she didn’t want to open the garage door in order to pour it out. The next morning the bucket contained one dead mouse. “Well, I think it was a mouse,” she said, “Some kind of abnormally large species, anyways, about three times bigger than most mice. Maybe it was some other kind of rodent I don’t even know about. Definitely not a rat, though.”
I was skeptical. In my extensive experience as a pet store patron, I had come to know that rats were usually about two or three times the size of most mice. In my experience as a biology major and Wikipedia enthusiast, I knew that rats were much more common in Colorado than the giant, carnivorous Gough Island Mouse, which also fit her description. She was adamant that it wasn’t a rat, though. Admittedly, it did seem improbable that a fully grown rat could worm its way into her practically new and presumably low-hole car. Then again, how did a mouse get in? I didn’t know, but I think the real reason for her conclusion was she just couldn’t bear the thought that any sort of rat, dead or alive, had gnawed a hole in the elbow of a sweater she had worn. If that were the case, she would probably need to burn the thing, fumigate her car, and go get tested for bubonic plague. And that was the absolute minimum.
Some people might not understand why this same squeamishness wouldn’t apply equally to the giant, carnivorous Gough Island Mouse. It made perfect sense to me, though. My junior year of college, I lived with four of my friends in an apartment on the outskirts of Boston. Now, I don’t know how common mice are in Boston apartments, but every other friend I had with an apartment in the area seemed to have had some encounter with them. Most of those encounters were “this one time” sort of stories, though, about an isolated incident where they walked into the kitchen in the early morning and saw one of the little bastards scurry away as the light came on.
These people were amateurs. Our apartment also had mice, but more in the way that an ant colony has ants. Our encounters were “this one time today” stories about the afternoon’s top sighting. It was a veritable Hamster Habitat® for mice, with all the Fun-nels®, food, and comfy piles of wood chips a mouse’s little heart could desire. In fact, it would have been far more story worthy if we didn’t see a mouse when walking into our kitchen.
This was mostly our fault. There were many things that made our apartment a good mouse hangout: food left out all over the place for days on end, warm tight spaces with ample nesting materials, a generous drug sharing policy…. The biggest by far, however, was our trash situation. The apartment was on the third floor, and taking out the trash required walking down a claustrophobically narrow spiral staircase, then walking across a parking lot outside to the dumpster, and then marching all the way back from whence you came. It took several minutes and was deeply unpleasant, particularly during the winter. For those who don’t know, Boston is cold from November until sometime in March, generally in the single digits (Fahrenheit!) at night.
The combination of the immense trek, the cold air, and our general laziness made the perfect storm for trash build up. When our kitchen trash couldn’t possibly be crushed and compacted any further, we started pulling the bag out, tying it up, and putting it next to the can for a later trip to the dumpster. The justification for this was that it was inefficient to take out a single bag at a time when we each had two arms, which is really just good, old-fashioned common sense.
This logic quickly extended to all 10 of the arms between us. Over time our arms become stronger, and we decided that they had enough strength to carry at least two bags apiece. Eventually, this line of thinking reached its natural conclusion. We decided the trash pile was an impossible problem that we just had to accept as an inescapable fact of life we would do our best to ignore, like the existence of Young Earth Creationists. Practically speaking, there was still plenty of room. Though the back door was blocked, there was still a path around the sink and into the pantry, and while the pile’s footprint occupied roughly two-thirds of the square footage of our kitchen, there were still ample cubic feet free in the airspace between the trash and ceiling.
When our lease was still young, the weather still warm, and we still gave a shit about keeping the apartment cleanish, there had still been some mice, but they were relatively uncommon. Now, though, their population seemed to explode exponentially as word caught on in the mouse community of a seemingly too-good-to-be-true, heated, indoor trash heap tended by unaggressive, half-baked humans with no experience capturing and killing mice. Every time one of us walked into the kitchen, day or night, multiple mice would scurry away from the pile. It actually got to the point that we would strobe the light on and off before entering. It was important to let them know we were coming to avoid any unpleasant confrontations between our two peoples.
Then one day that winter, one of my roommates received a call from the landlord. She was letting us know that an exterminator would be coming to our apartment to check for mice. This wasn’t special treatment. The exterminator was visiting all the apartments to set traps and look for “hazards,” an exterminator’s term of art for things that could attract mice. Apparently, something had been bringing mice to the building in, as the landlord put it, “unusually high numbers” that year, and she wanted to fix it before she received any more complaints from the tenants.
My roommates and I decided it would probably be in our best interests to remove Mount Shitney before the exterminator showed up. We brainstormed and many worthy ideas were put forth. Notably, there was talk of taking the T to Shaw’s to pick up cleaning supplies and really rolling our sleeves up, but that never materialized. Instead, we used some college-level critical thinking skills to come up with the idea of transitioning the trash to our storage area in the basement first. This would be a preliminary step before ultimately relocating it to its final destination in the dumpster.
It really was a brilliant plan. Not only would this clear it out of the apartment before the exterminator arrived, we also wouldn’t have to brave the frigid winter chill. If we were really lucky, the exterminator might even find it down there, not know whose it was due to the ill-defined storage area boundaries, and conclude that it was a serious hazard that he would move himself. Unfortunately, he must not of have realized the bags contained actual trash because they were still there the next day, and we never heard anything about them from him.
When the exterminator did finally show up at our apartment it was in rare form. Not that it was what I would call clean, but it was definitely clean for us. Besides creating a trash free kitchen, we had also put the dishes in the dishwasher, wiped off the counters, and removed all the food from the living room. Basically, we were going for a look that told the guy, “Hey, we might not keep the cleanest place, but we probably aren’t the source of the mouse problem.” If it were too clean he might know we were trying to bullshit him, like the normally mediocre student who forges an A+ on his report card. It was a chess game you see, moves ahead of moves, tricks within tricks.
When the exterminator arrived, he didn’t seem to take any particular note of our apartment. He looked around a little and put out poison in out-of-the-way, mouse-prone spots, like behind the fridge and stove. He also gave us practical advice on what not to do, basically a list that could have been a daily journal entry for things we had done.
“You guys seen many mice in this apartment?” he asked.
“Some, yeah,” I said.
“Well, you want to make sure you don’t leave open food containers out, and that you clean used dishes right away. You also want to sweep the floors frequently to get any food crumbs than might have fallen down there.”
“Yeah, I’m a real stickler for frequent sweeping.”
“That’s good. You also probably want to get a lid for that trash can, something that makes a tight seal. That could be what’s attracting the ones you’ve seen. Mice love trash.”
Having the exterminator come actually turned out to be a turning point for us. Up until then, we had attempted to control the population using mouse traps baited with peanut butter, the most effective bait according to the package. These weren’t the classic wood slab, spring and wire contraptions you feel inclined to bait with a little wedge of yellow cheese, but they did operate on a similar principle. The big difference was ours were enclosed so that the mouse had to walk through a little tunnel to get to the bait and meet his doom. I think the reason for the enclosure was so that you wouldn’t have to look at the dead mouse. Instead, without averting your eyes, you could just pick up the whole apparatus and throw it in the trash. It seemed like a pretty good system when we bought it. Who doesn’t like peanut butter?
As it turned out, the mice did like peanut butter. Unfortunately, they were too smart for the traps, which were essentially elaborate mouse feeders. Every time the mice went in the traps, they somehow managed to avoid springing them. Whether the mice knew how the traps worked or just didn’t weigh enough to set them off, I’m not really sure. If I had to take a guess, though, I’d say they outsmarted us. Like I said, they’re crafty. That said, this whole dynamic changed when the exterminator brought what, to this day, I still believe to be the only truly effective mouse trap: sticky paper.
Sticky paper is pretty much exactly what the name says: a piece of stiff paper a little bigger than a postcard with a strong adhesive on one side. When mice run over the exposed adhesive, they get inescapably stuck. Like the advent of gunpowder changed the face of warfare forever, the acquisition of sticky paper technology meant the balance of power between mouse and human in our apartment was never quite the same. We went from not having caught a single mouse to bagging three or four every single day. In fact, we had to go out and buy more sticky paper in less than a week. It seemed like every piece we put down bagged a mouse by the next morning.
There was one, however, who refused to be bagged.
His existence began as rumor. There were whispers in the halls among my roommates. One of them claimed to have seen a giant rodent-like creature, possibly carnivorous, twice the size of the average mouse, and three times as clever. He swore had seen the little bastard deliberately run around sticky paper directly in its path. Then reports began to surface of having to clean up mouse turds more like the feces of a small cat than mere mouse poop.
We dubbed him Mighty Mouse. He wasn’t just clever and large, either. He was also bolder than most mice. Where most would hightail it out of any room we entered, Mighty Mouse would linger until we made an aggressive move towards him, and even then he would wait until the last possible moment to flee, much in the same manner a seasoned city pigeon handles an aggressive pedestrian.
Before I actually saw the mouse first hand, I thought the description of Mighty Mouse was probably a bit of an exaggeration. It was consistent with my roommates’ humor to exaggerate the tale, take it way too seriously, and act like we had a real life mousesquatch roaming the woods underneath our couch. I was quickly disabused of this notion when I finally bore witness to Mighty Mouse himself. He was on our coffee table, casually enjoying a late breakfast. It startled, impressed, and angered me all at once. This sort of encroachment was way over the established boundaries we had with mouse kind. I had never seen a mouse get onto the coffee table. In fact, I didn’t even think they were capable of getting up there since we never found mouse poop on it, which was the primary method by which we determined where the mice went. Whether he had climbed up or jumped over from the couch I couldn’t be sure, though the thought of mice crawling over the couch I regularly laid my face and mouth on gave me pause. Whatever his method, it was an act of war.
Mighty Mouse’s roguish incursions into our territory prompted us to step up our mousing efforts. Additional poison was put out. Things were cleaned. Sticky paper was put down in new areas, including all over the living room. He always seemed to be there in the morning while the other mice kept mostly to the kitchen.
In the beginning, our efforts went in vain. Unusually large poop kept appearing in upsetting new places. We had to put our half-eaten food in increasingly inconvenient locations, like on top the television and on the windowsill. One infamous evening, Mighty Mouse even managed to blitzkrieg his way past the Maginot Line of sticky paper guarding the entryway to my bedroom and into my precious closet. It was very unusual for a mouse to come into the bedrooms, let alone while we were awake and occupying them, let alone with an arsenal of sticky paper lined up in the doorway.
But this was no mouse.
It went on like this for weeks, getting to the point that we had given up any real hope of ever catching him. Best case scenario, we thought he would get bored with our place and leave for greener pastures come spring. That, of course, was like hoping a horny teenager would leave the Playboy mansion because he might think he could get better tail elsewhere.
Then, as if he had been waiting all this time just to build the suspense, Dr. Steven Q. “Mighty Mouse” Johnson ran over one of the pieces of sticky paper behind the couch. I didn’t understand how he could have made such a rookie mistake. Maybe he was tired from a long day of being top mouse. Maybe he had drunk some spilled beer off the coffee table. Or maybe he had seen something about Young Earth Creationists on the TV and no longer wanted to live on this planet. I’ll never really know. All I knew was we had him.
And it felt terrible.
I knew it was Mighty Mouse before I even saw him on the sticky paper. One of the drawbacks of sticky paper is that the when the mice are caught they don’t just sit quietly waiting for you to come kill them. They usually squeak—like mad at first, then intermittently as time wears on. In fact, this was usually the only way we knew the traps behind the couch had caught anything. Mighty Mouse began squeaking in the middle of the night. So loud was his mighty little roar that I actually thought it woke me up.
Another drawback of sticky paper is it does not actually kill the mice. This would probably be an advantage if it weren’t for the fact that it’s impossible to remove the mice from the paper once stuck. This leaves you two options. You can throw the paper away, leaving the mouse to slowly die of starvation or dehydration in the trash can, or you can do the right thing and put the poor thing out of its misery as quickly as possible. We did this by putting a plastic cup on their necks and pressing down hard to break them. It’s quick and reliable, but I always hated doing it, even when I was doing it multiple times a day.
Despite all the trouble he had caused us, I hated the thought of having to kill Mighty Mouse even more than the usual mouse. Somehow we had developed a sort of frenemy relationship during his stay in our apartment. He was my beloved arch-nemesis. Without him I would be a Tom without a Jerry, a Wile E. Coyote without a roadrunner, many mountains upon mountains upon mountains of empirical evidence without Young Earth Creationists. That night, I lay awake for at least an hour pitying the little bastard and dreading what was next.
In the morning I got up to do what had to be done. The squeaks were still coming, but they now seemed quieter and somehow more withdrawn. We soon discovered why. During the night the little badass—God bless him—had actually chewed through his right front leg in an attempt to get free. It was sad and shocking. It compounded my guilt even further, but it also left me deeply impressed with the noble, heroic spirit of the mouse.
I won’t go into the details of Mighty Mouse’s death, but suffice it to say it was quick and likely painless. He died like the mouse he had lived as. Before I did it, the thought briefly ran through my head to go get some scissors, cut him free, and get him a little cage where I could nurse him back to health, and he could retire in Hamster Habitat® luxury. It was not a serious thought, of course, just a fantasy. I knew keeping him as a pet would be too undignified for such a creature. Living as a prisoner was not an option for a being like him. My more practical side also knew he would almost certainly bite me.
Mighty Mouse was a one mouse Battle of the Bulge, the last major offensive of the mice in The 138 Sutherland Road Number Two War of 2004. After his passing, we would encounter the occasional mouse, but none were his equal, and they never came in numbers like before. Eventually, spring was upon us, and the mouse population in our apartment became almost nonexistent as they left to take in the warmer weather, and one of my roommates discovered we could throw trash directly into the dumpster from one of our bedroom windows.
After my mom finished telling me her story about the mouse in her garage, I kept coming back to her description of her patients as the sort of people who knew mouse-gnawed holes when they saw ‘em. At first, I had laughed at it in the classist sort of way that my mom and I like to joke about the more rough-around-the-edges members of society. Then I realized that I was that sort of person and smiled nostalgically.