What Would Thoreau Do?


Telltale evidence leaves no doubt. I have a mouse in the garage. I refuse to say “mice” as the thought of more than one of the furry creatures inhabiting secret corners, freaks me out. I coexist fine with spiders and snakes. Only a mouse can make me stand on a chair and scream.

Fear grips me, but why? Living in Colorado, I’ve heard of Hantavirus. Carried by  large-eared, storybook-looking deer mice, this disease has no cure. Flu-like symptoms progress to rupture of the lung capillaries, leading the victim to drown in his own fluids.  Most likely my intruders are the common gray variety, but my yard backs out to a field, so deer mice cannot be ruled out.

Maybe the fear comes from childhood memories. “We’ve got a mouse in the kitchen!”  I remember my mom’s alarmed voice and picture her face, a mask of fear, revulsion and a tinge of shame. Working full time with my dad’s business, and squeezing in the housework when she could, did she think the mouse was a judgment on her housekeeping?

Maybe it goes deeper — Jungian psychology says that we inherit memories and feelings from our ancestors as part of the collective unconscious. In the struggle for survival, our human forebears learned aversion for those things that could kill them.  Even though it was lice that spread the Black Death, we remember the carrier rodents as the bad guys.

The droppings increase and one day I see a mouse sprinting across the garage floor.  It’s time for action.

I have a t-shirt that asks, above a picture of his bearded face, “What Would Thoreau Do?”  In Walden, Thoreau tells us he befriended a mouse to the extent that it would take food from his fingers; then sit on his hand afterward cleaning its face and paws. Children who visited the cabin at Walden Pond were delighted when Thoreau would play his flute to charm the mice from their hiding places.

Alas, I am not Thoreau. Instead, I prepare for the attack: My battle gear begins with a box of surgical masks, several pairs of vinyl gloves, three bottles of Clorox and four rolls of paper towels.

My old kitchen cabinets recycled as storage units line the garage walls along with easy-assembly shelves. The garage is my main storage area. It holds books, papers, games, picnic supplies, paint cans, golf items, Christmas decorations, my daughter’s old roller blades, and much more.

Donning mask and gloves, I tackle the first set of shelves, aware of the slight but still scary risk of inhaling the dreaded Hantavirus. The cover of the puzzle box looks sticky.  Dried urine? Flipping over the roller blades releases a shower of mouse droppings to the floor. Ew—uu!  It’s all got to go. My large trash bin soon overflows.

Behind my surgical mask I am immune to the fumes that waft out across my green yard, but in taking a breather after two hours of work, I see that I have cleaned only the smallest space.  This could take weeks. I need to start trapping.  I peel off the vinyl gloves, toss the mask, blow my runny nose and head for Home Depot.

Inside the massive warehouse I find that someone has indeed built a better mousetrap.  The old standard wooden one that my mother used is still there, but a childhood fear of snapping my finger off rules that out. Likewise, I reject the poisons. Too cruel and the disposed bodies could kill innocent creatures.

Interesting—for $29.95 I can get a plug-in that sends sound waves which cause mice to leave the area. Mouse activity might increase at first, it says on the label. What does that mean? Like rock and roll, the cool vibes would put them in a sexy mood and before you knew it there’d be mouse babies? Or maybe the sonar discords would force them to leave the annoying premises of my garage for the peace and quiet of my kitchen? No thank you.

At last I settle on the plastic version of the old wooden model, and also grab a plastic box called Mice Trap. At home I unpackage my purchases. The Mice Trap requires an assembly that I can’t understand. I turn instead to the snap traps, spread peanut butter on the tiny bait-plates and place them strategically around the garage.

The next morning I have caught four mice. Two are in one trap—a mother and a young one, both their heads under the metal bar together. The mother looks pregnant.  She also looks alive. She is living but badly hurt. With jaw clenched, I steel myself.  This scenario cannot have an alternate ending. I dump the traps, creatures living and dead in a bag, tie it tight and throw them into the trash bin.

I am too hardened by my sense of mission to cry, but I am sad. Oh, the little one!  Following his instinct, his heart, his stomach, sticking close to mom, and where does it get him? SNAP!

Since I have failed to reuse the reusable traps, I must head back to Home Depot. It’s a  quicker trip this time since I am satisfied with my chosen instrument of death.

The next morning two more are dead in the traps.

That night I wake up four times. In the quiet darkness, I wonder if I am waking up each time a mouse dies.

Mice have invaded my subconscious before. My family and I once spent a night in a state park cabin, where before going to bed, we saw a mouse run under the refrigerator.  My resourceful son dumped the remainder of his bag of popcorn behind the refrigerator hoping to keep the mouse happy and in place, which it likely did. But in the morning we discovered each of the four of us had dreamed our own different mouse dream, which we shared over breakfast, all the while keeping watchful eyes on the refrigerator.

The numbers of my catch have been decreasing.  4, 2, 1.  Seven in all.  Maybe I have wiped out the whole family.

But the next morning I discover number eight–dead on his back, the cruel steel across the middle of his flat body.

I launch into the final cleaning surge. I move everything to the south side of the garage, which showed no sign of mice.  They only occupied the north side that stored birdseed, grass seed and dog food. Even though I removed that delectable smorgasboard, by then it was home, complete with a cozy nest in old carpet squares.

Only two former kitchen cupboards remain.  They’re too heavy for me to move, so I enlist my handyman to help me.

My new plan is to have open shelving and store anything remotely edible into containers with tight lids. There will be no place to hide and nothing to eat. I am following common sense but also Navaho wisdom.  When the most devastating outbreak of Hantavirus occurred on the Navaho reservation in 1993, the elders referred to their tradition which honors the mouse for carrying seeds which brought life to the world, but also has a taboo against the mouse world and human world mingling. Therefore hogans are kept free of anything that would attract mice.  Medicine men said that violation of that tradition led to the deaths.

My handyman comes to take out the cabinets.  “Whew!”  He holds his nose. “It smells like a laundromat!  What have you been doing?”

I tell my story and empty Clorox bottles lined up in a row bear witness.

“What kind of traps did you use?”

I show him the snap traps. “Have you heard of the catch and release kind?”

“That must be the one I couldn’t figure out how to assemble.”

I locate it, and he snaps the plastic pieces together. “See?  They go up this little ramp. The ramp flips back down and they can’t get out.  It can hold four or five.”

“So then what would I do?”

“Relocate them. They don’t have a wide radius.  If you take them half a mile away, they won’t come back.”

Again I think of Thoreau. He got along with mice, but he had a problem with woodchucks when he grew beans at Walden. “My enemies,” he said, “are worms, cool days, and most of all woodchucks. They have nibbled for me an eighth of an acre clean.  I plant in faith and they reap.”

He consulted a neighboring farmer about the best way to deal with his woodchuck problem. “Shoot ‘em, you damn fool!” was the not so neighborly reply.  Thoreau opted for relocation.  He trapped the granddaddy woodchuck and carried the boxed rodent against his chest for three miles where he let it go, never to see it again.

The idea of carrying a box full of squirming squeakers makes me shudder, but I could do it. I’d be a middleman in the food chain, releasing the mice to a world of roaming cats, hungry foxes and an occasional bull snake.

I test the one-way ramp of the relocation trap before filling the bait cup with peanut butter. As I place it on the sanitized garage floor, I’m flooded with a warm feeling of approval. It must be Thoreau smiling down on me.


Lucy BellLucy Bell is a retired teacher and writing consultant. She is a certified Native Plant Master and Interpretive Guide at Cheyenne Mountain State Park. She founded Friends of Emerson in Colorado Springs, now in its thirteenth year.