On the Farm, Rapidly Evolving Super Mice

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The mice in our farmhouse are can-do intellectuals — mice of action. My wife opened a kitchen cabinet the other day and caught two of them using their tiny, humanish hands to unscrew the top from a jar of Skippy 25% reduced fat chunky peanut butter. Two nights later, amazingly, they succeeded, and rewarded themselves with a mouse feast that left the peanut butter half gone and, all around the jar, a triumphant scattering of scats, which look like chocolate sprinkles.

It is only a matter of months before these Darwinian marvels learn to use a can opener, a skill that will lift them to a higher stage of mouse evolution — and to the more civilized pleasures of canned Mexicorn, Bush's baked beans, and solid white, water-packed tuna. In a generation or two, smart young mice will have a system of pulleys that will open the refrigerator door in the middle of the night. God knows how a new infusion of butter, protein-rich cheese, yogurt, red-leaf lettuce, and V-8 juice will invigorate the breed and enlarge its cerebral cortex.

It is hard to be hostile to creatures so charmingly intent, so assiduous, and so eagerly scrambling up the food chain. I guess they would not be cute if they carried bubonic plague. But these being glove-gray country mice that have skittered in from a Tom and Jerry cartoon, I root for their innocence and ingenuity. I am even mouse-proud. My mice are smarter than your mice! After the stunt with the Skippy peanut butter jar, I felt as they had gotten 800s on their SATs. These guys are good.

There was a time in my primitive past when I dealt with mice by setting out the ancient instruments of death — the medieval cheese-baited mouse-whackers that terminate the hungry midnight rodent like the Inquisition nailing a Cathar. In bed, I would hear a trap going off in the middle of the night: THWACK! A little extinction in another part of the house. In the morning, I would dispose of the carnage.

The cats, Bruce and Frankie, are useless — tender, almost Franciscan in their laissez-faire, live-and-let-live mouse-tolerance. See no mouse, hear no mouse, eat no mouse. There seems to be a strange detente, inexplicable in Tom-and-Jerry terms. I think that Bruce and Frankie have nervously acknowledged the evolutionary velocity of the mice and have decided to stand aside, perhaps in the hope of future favors when the mice take over.

Having abandoned mouse-whackers, on Buddhist grounds, and having despaired of the cats as hired assassins, we have resorted to a "Havahart" trap — a small rectangular steel cage, with doors at either end and bait in the middle, that captures the mouse alive. We have caught a mouse on each of the last two nights (baiting with peanut butter, of course). I come into the kitchen and find the little prodigy, eyes bright with terror, scrunched in a corner of the cage, under the flap door. It's possible that part of his unhappiness arises from humiliation at being fooled by such a childishly transparent device. He finally looks at me, however, directly in the face, and I am astonished at a hard, still, appraising look in his eyes, which reminds me of the fixed gaze of a magazine editor I once worked for (a man whose evolution, it must be said, ran rapidly in the other direction, descending toward the rodent stage.)

Each morning, I drive a captured mouse a mile down the road and release him near the empty house where the hermit died a few months ago, on the theory the mouse can inconvenience no one there. It disturbs me, however, to think that before long the mice in their growing colony of exile may organize a Restoration, and one day march back down the road to our farmhouse, and, in their thousands, reclaim what is theirs. After the revolution, they will set me to work in their kitchen, fixing them peanut butter sandwiches.