"I THINK MICE are rather nice.'' There's a comforting sense of rhyme, but not necessarily of human reality, in that epigraph to Rose Fyleman's familiar children's poem.
In fact, the appearance of these small rodents in human dwellings is frequent cause for alarm and immediate resort to the abundant arsenal of traps (spring-loaded or sticky glue) and poisons. Along with rock salt and snow shovels, mouse-elimination supplies rank high on the list of winter seasonal demands at the local hardware.
The cold weather drives more of these wee beasties to seek shelter inside, setting up the clash of co-habitation with people. It's not that humans couldn't abide a few silent, hidden tenants in their homes. But the spreading trails of tiny black mice droppings on the floor provide graphic warning that there's a potential hygiene problem here that must be dealt with.
A nibbled electrical wire, a ragged hole in dry wall or insulation barrier, are other signs that these cute critters of bedtime story and cartoon can be pests.
Yet, the ultimate removal of a dead mouse, done in by the artifacts of man, is not a cause for joy, either. There's a certain sadness that the deed had to be done to protect the health of the human dwellers, especially the little ones who do not distinguish between the edible and the chewable.
The trace of regret underlines our ambivalence toward these small animals that cause us no harm in their natural habitat, but ample problems in ours.
''I'm truly sorry man's dominion, has broken Nature's social union,'' penned another poet, a distant ancestor of mine, after a similar confrontation that ended in disaster for a small, scared field mouse two centuries earlier.
Dominion and control
What upsets most humans about mice, aside from irrational fears of any wild creature, is that they do not control mice. ''Man's dominion'' of environment is disruptive and lethal to the mouse, but it is not direct domination. When we can control the skittering, squeaking animal, and bend it to our needs and ways, the mouse may be a welcome (or at least tolerated) lodger.
Mickey Mouse and his anthropomorphic cousins are happy companions inhabiting our childhood and our literature. These are human-directed beings, in mouse guise, that mimic our actions or respond to human expectations. They are not real mice with real mice needs and inclinations.
But a real mouse, with definite human control, may be acceptable compromise; man's dominion obtains in a benevolent relationship.
Which brings me to the story of my brother-in-law, whose children's household menagerie recently acquired a snake. The reptile (of which there are few positive anthropomorphic creations) had to be fed. Not dog biscuits or table scraps or packaged ''snake food'' but live prey.
So Father was dispatched to the pet store to purchase the snake's dinner: three white mice, maintained in a glass cage aside the cages of hamsters, gerbils and rabbits. Though close relatives of these pet rodent species, the mice are regularly sold as food for reptiles and larger animals.
Returning home with the snake's carryout meal, the man looked in the uncomprehending eyes of these timid animals and decided he could not deliver them up to the serpent. With Franciscan charity, he placed them in their own cage to live out their short span as household pets.
Their similarity to the family guinea pig is instructive: mice are considered pests or prey because they are naturally in man's midst, while exotic rodents are treated as cosseted pets.
Except by such kind-hearted souls as my brother-in-law, who thinks that mice are rather nice.
Michael K. Burns writes editorials for The Sun.