Mighty Mouse seems to be winning this battle of wits

January 13, 2001|By Rob Kasper

I KEEP TELLING myself that humans are smarter than mice.

The human brain, according to an article in Scientific American, has some 100 billion nerve cells, or neurons, that are linked in networks to give rise to a variety of mental and cognitive attributes, such as memory, intelligence, emotion and personality.

I recite this to myself as I stretch out on the kitchen floor, easing yet another mousetrap beneath a kitchen counter. The Scientific American article has inspired me to yell, "Yo! Fur-face! My neurons are comin' at ya." "Fur-face" is one of the names I have given my nemesis, a mouse with attitude.

He - my research indicates this is a male - made his first appearance in the kitchen about one week ago. At first he was shy, scurrying for cover anytime I drew near. But he has become bolder. The other night when I found him in the kitchen, he was posing. He cocked his head and gave me one of those "What-are-you-doin'-here?" looks. Instead of running away as I approached, he seemed to saunter, saying, in mouse-body language, catch me if you can.

I have been trying. Until I matched wits with this furry ball of confidence, I considered myself a master mouse catcher. Part of the charm of living in Maryland is that when the weather turns cold, mice invade your home.

Over the years I have used a variety of instruments to battle mice. One cold night a few years ago, I used a lacrosse stick, a short sawed-off number that belonged to one of the kids, to dispatch a mouse. This one pranced into our family room, just as I was settling down, in my skivvies, to watch "Law & Order," one of my favorite TV shows. I grabbed the biggest weapon that was handy - the lacrosse stick - and poked it at him. He skedaddled into an overturned wastebasket lined with a plastic bag. I closed the bag. Then, wearing little more than a bathrobe and a pair of heavy boots I ventured into the nippy winter air to bid adieu to the visitor.

In most cases an inviting dollop of peanut butter served on a spring-loaded mousetrap takes care of business.

But this one appears to be a gourmet mouse. He won't touch the peanut butter - creamy or chunky. Moreover, when I moved up to a more expensive menu, he turned up his nose at bacon, the bait d'resistance. Until now no mouse has been able to "just say no" to a morsel of bacon served on a trap that has been "smoked," with a match, to increase its aromatic allure.

Because this is an exceptional mouse, I have taken extraordinary measures. Namely I looked him up on the Internet. I did a search on "mouse intelligence" and came up with some pretty interesting information about this character.

First of all, I surmised that this is a male mouse. I came to this conclusion after reading the results, reported on the Web, of the science project of Samantha Elizabeth Beech, a sixth-grader in Honolulu.

Samantha ran three male mice and three females through a maze and recorded how long it took each mouse to make it through the maze. She assumed that the more intelligent a mouse is, the faster it would run through the maze. Samantha found that the male mice were faster (and therefore smarter). The smart aleck in my kitchen can move with lightning speed. That, combined with his tendency to pose, convinced me this mouse was male.

The Web research also helped me figure out where this mouse came from; he hails from Prince- ton, N.J. He has got to be kin to one of the smart, genetically engineered mice bred by Joe Z. Tsien, an assistant professor in the department of molecular biology at Princeton.

I read about these mice in an article called "Building a Brainier Mouse" that Tsien published in Scientific American and posted on the Web. Tsien and colleagues bred a batch of smarter mice, dubbed "Doogies" after the boy genius on the TV show "Doogie Howser, M.D." Experiments showed that the Doogie mice had better memories and were faster learners than ordinary mice.

Somehow, some way, I have a Doogie, a Princeton mouse in my kitchen. He disdains peanut butter and pork and behaves like he is smarter than anyone else in the house. So far he has been right.

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