BILL ELIOT has unusual pets ''of a sort,'' he says.
Several months ago he thought he had the largest mice infestation in his house that anyone could have.
However, his mice visitors are apparently no more than three very persistent ones who have become fat, unafraid and loyal to Eliot's humane mouse trap, where they eat as often as four or more times a day.
When he first spotted evidence that he had a mouse in the house, he bought a small plastic box trap that would hold one mouse without killing it. Every time he set it, he'd catch a mouse. Then he'd take the box and release his catch way up a wooded path on the 36 acres in Carroll County on which his home is located.
Eliot can't kill any living thing, and his property is posted against any kind of hunting. He offers a safe haven for a good variety of animals, such as fox, deer, pheasants and others.
Eliot is a retired engineer from Westinghouse, having spent much of his career helping develop the radar installed on many of the planes now being used in the gulf war. He is also an accomplished clarinetist and saxophone player and is often away on gigs playing Dixieland jazz or swing.
He didn't like the small plastic mousetrap, feeling it was inhumane to leave a little creature for long periods in such a small closed trap, so he purchased a much larger wire cage trap that would afford the mice more room until he could release them.
As time went by, he says, he became a little lazy about walking the path four or five times a day and late at night, so he began taking the mice down to a small wood shed, which was still a good distance from the house but was not as long a walk.
His hope was they'd find food there and stop coming inside. He was wrong. Wrong that there were lots of mice and wrong that they would stay away.
''It took some time for me to realize the mice were getting friendlier each day. They were also getting fatter. Plus, instead of scurrying out of the trap all terrified as they had when first released, I now had to take my finger and push them out of the trap.
''All of them look exactly alike except for one, whose tail is short and appears to be cut off. Each is a soft brown on top with white stomach and feet. Their little toenails are very, very white and they seem to hold the food with their front feet and kind of stuff it in their mouths. So I decided to do some research,'' he says.
He dabbed a dot of orange ink on the stomach of the mouse presently entrapped in his cage.
This was late one evening after a music gig. ''I am a night person and was relaxing after the job. I painted the mouse and walked down and released him in the shed. I had barely gotten back to the house when I heard the trap door close. There he was, with a big orange dot on his stomach, having a late-night snack and politely ignoring me. I took him back to the shed.
''Again the next morning, I found him in the trap,'' says Eliot, who says he just automatically puts in the peanut butter and sets the trap after each release.
To top this off, that afternoon, after coming in from snow-blowing a path to the wood shed, there again was little old orange dot waiting in the trap and full of peanut butter.
Over a period of a month or more, Eliot dotted two more mice with orange. That was it, no others have appeared.
He can identify each and has given them names. The one with half a tail is Stubby Tail. He splashed an extra big dot of orange on one and calls him Big Blob, and the other one he calls Mickey.
Each mouse seems to take turns coming in to eat, and each one is getting friendlier, fatter and less anxious to leave the trap, particularly as the weather is getting colder. Eliot is pretty sure they use the path he cleared with his snow blower to come back from the wood shed.
He jokes that he is operating Uncle Willy's Mouse Sanctuary, that the peanut butter keeps running out and that although he gets tired of them, he marvels at their ability to get in the house, which has a frame of solid concrete and is a very secure and relatively new home.
With so many trips with the trap each day, he contemplates getting a large cage, putting all three in it, and releasing them far away from his farm.
But, while most people are rushing for traps and poisons that will kill the mice in their homes, Bill Eliot worries that his wouldn't survive somewhere else. ''They give me exercise and some unusual nature entertainment . . . of a sort.''