It was just after Christmas a few winters ago, the family still visiting and the kitchen still in holiday mode with tins of cookies and jars of homemade jellies tied with bright ribbons, when I noticed what looked like a piece of black rice on our white windowsill. On closer inspection, I found it to be mouse droppings. I was determined to take care of the matter, while at the same time show respect for the preciousness of life in that mouse.
I found a tiny box trap, the kind that captures the mouse without hurting it. After dinner that night, I baited the trap with organic almond butter and set the delicate mechanism that arms the trap so that one lick, and crack, the doors would snap shut.
Less than an hour later I heard the snap, went to look, and found a very small prisoner with large round pink ears, and quite frightened. I displayed my prize, and the discussion of what to do with it began.
The family said the mouse would freeze if I put it out into the snow. So, after much discussion, we decided to release it into our old schoolbus, used for storage now and already home to plenty of other mice. To get it started well in its new life, I filled the lid of a jar with bird seed, and opened the doors of the cage. After a moment, the mouse made a dash for the shadows and disappeared.
Feeling enormously satisfied with myself, I stored the trap in the basement. The next day I again found droppings so I confidently set the trap. By morning, another success. I put the trap, with a rather larger mouse inside, into a paper grocery bag with handles, and later, when I went to shovel the snow from the walk, I carried it to the bus. Most of the seed was gone from the previous mouse’s container, but enough remained to get this mouse also started in her new home.
But this time, the mouse did not want to leave the trap. Even shaking the trap did not work. The mouse just hung on harder. I put the trap way back in a dark corner and waited. Finally, it ran.
A few days passed and then I found more mouse droppings. The almond butter proved once again to be good bait. Another mouse was caught and carefully released.
After a few more catch and releases, I began to get confused. Was it six or seven mice so far? Or eight? I decided to start marking the calendar every time I caught another one. Soon I began to set the trap every night, whether I suspected a mouse or not.
The weather turned warm and the snow began to melt but then a cold snap hit and froze everything. The driveway became treacherous and the path to the bus even worse. I was still catching mice but by bedtime, when I usually set the trap, I realized I still had the mouse from the day before waiting in the paper bag to be released. The poor thing. I certainly was not going to risk a fall on the ice to deliver it to its new home, but what if it died of thirst in the cage? I cut some thin strips of carrot and wedged them into the wall of the cage to hold her over. In the morning most of the carrots were gone and I was able to make a decent path to the bus by sprinkling ashes from the wood stove on the black ice.
Winter thawed and then froze again and taking the trap with the mouse in it to the bus became a regular part of each days’ rhythm. Make coffee, check for a mouse, put the trap in the bag, mark the calendar. Sweep the snow off the porch, feed the birds, take the mouse to the bus on the way to getting the newspaper at the end of the driveway.
Then one day, along about early March as I turned the page on the calendar, I began to count all the X’s I had marked down indicating a mouse caught. I went through the month of February and added these X’s to the ones in January. The total was 35! I was shocked. Wait a minute, I thought, there can’t 35 mice running around this winter. What’s going on I wondered?
My only excuse for not getting suspicious earlier was that the regular pace of the daily routine, such as sweeping the floor and bringing in the firewood, had dulled my wits.
Determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, the next morning I took my paint brush marked the mouse I had caught with a bit of white on his ear. The next day I marked the mouse with a splotch of yellow on his backside. And on the third day my scientific inquiry was rewarded with a specimen in the trap clearly sporting white paint on its ear.
No wonder the mice kept looking fatter as winter went by. It was the same two mice. They had a trained human to give them organic almond butter every time they made the run through the snowy woods, sparkling with moonlight and avoiding the old owl who watched.
Finally, as the first snowdrops popped up and the sun got stronger, I decided the mice needed a new routine, one that included a nice car ride to an old barn up the road. There was a meadow there, too, and it seemed a promising spot for two young mice to embrace the coming of springtime. Especially if there was a jar lid full of bird seed waiting to help get them started in their new lives.
Kanta Lipsky lives in West Tisbury.