Mice slyly bend `iron law'

June 30, 2002|By Richard O'Mara

MY CAT has killed three mice in our apartment. More precisely, she arrested them; I did them in with my size 8 1/2 wide boat shoe.

Flo, my cat, is not humane. Cat's aren't, though they are capable of human-like affection, as dogs are. This is according to my pretty good source on cats and dogs, whose identity will be revealed below.

Flo wasn't finished with the mice when I came upon them, each time in the dining room. I'm not sure what caused me to dispatch them -- a desire to end their suffering or fear they might get away from her? (They never do.)

The exterminator, who gets paid princely sums by our North Baltimore condo association, came to inspect. Such "invasions," he said, usually occur in winter, when the mice slip into our old building to get away from the cold. They leave when it warms up. He described this as a natural impulse, similar to that of the lemmings who every so often all get the same idea and rush off pell mell to the sea. It's one of those "iron laws" of nature, he said. Animals do what animals have always done.

Thus, I had been anticipating the departure of our mice all spring, but they didn't leave. (Flo caught one in early June.) Spring was chilly in Baltimore, so I assumed that encouraged them to put off their departure. Then Memorial Day came and went, and it warmed up. But our mice stayed put.

Were they in violation of their law?

Many exterminators give the impression they know a lot about the vermin and pests that they're hired to banish.

A few years ago, a friend's house was "invaded" by roaches. A pest control man in a neat, tan uniform arrived. He said little at first, just walked around the house with an expression that suggested he possessed lethal knowledge. I was there when he gave his briefing: A roach, he said portentously, can live six months on a piece of fingernail. Though we weren't sure what the significance of that was, he let us dwell upon it for a while, then told how he would expel the roaches, which he did.

We were left reassured of the primacy of our species.

I know, it's creepy, even disgusting, to contemplate such information. But it's science, I guess, though I'm not certain all this esoteric knowledge about animal behavior flaunted by the bug-and-rodent guys is genuine. I've seen enough violations of these "iron laws" to encourage doubts.

Animals do tend to repetitive behavior, but they can change, if the need is strong. Last year, an advocate for wolves and coyotes, encountered at the annual Baltimore Book Fair, explained how the latter of these two canines, still shot on sight out West, had migrated and adapted to life in the big cities of the East.

"They stopped traveling in packs," she said. "They pass themselves off as stray dogs."

I don't like having mice in my house, nor does my wife, who lives here, too. But neither do I like to kill them, despite the mayhem I confessed above. Mice have certain qualities that, if you think of them before you put your foot down, might give you pause. I learned this from my favorite nature writer, the late Joseph Wood Krutch, who also knew about cats.

Mice, he wrote, in a 1950 essay, are attentive and caring parents. They are "fanatically clean, washing themselves and their young with exactly the same gestures a cat uses."

They do not live long. A 2-year-old mouse is a Methuselah. Unfortunately for them, they are eaten not only by cats, but by "skunks, weasels, snakes, owls, hawks, crows, and even foxes, who can sometimes be seen in an open field, pouncing like a cat."

Wolves and coyotes eat them, too, I'm sure.

My recent reading of this essay made me think that perhaps I have been waiting in vain for our unwanted guests to depart. Considering the array of predators beyond the white stucco walls of our building, who could blame them for tarrying. What mouse would choose to face that immense threat rather than the strategies of a single cat?

Mice may be small, weak and food for just about everything with a beak or claw, but stupid they're not.

It guess it's going to be a busy summer for Flo.

Richard O'Mara is a former foreign editor of The Sun.

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