The Writer

Frank J. Yacenda, a life-long writer, has been a journalist, editor, publisher, a science writer, a diplomat, and a public relations practitioner. See more about him here.

Let Me Be Your Editor

Frank J. Yacenda is a broadly experienced writer and editor who will help you conceive, perfect, produce, and promote your fiction or non-fiction writing project. See more here.

Check Out My New Book

Buying America the Right Way tells overseas real estate investors -- and U.S. ones, too -- what they need to know to get it right when buying in America. See it here.

Tag: Lessons

Learning From the Mice, Dammit

Learning From the Mice, Dammit

For anyone that doesn’t know, I live on a boat. As life aboard often holds, there are events and occurrences – usually unexpected and mostly unwanted – that crop up from time to time, ranging from electrical emergencies to a non-functioning pump, from rain leaks to other kinds of leaks. Fortunately, though, I’ve been spared the bane of rodents taking up residence on the vessel, something that is not unknown to boaters. Until recently, anyway.

I first became aware that I might not be alone a couple weeks ago when, in the darkness and quiet of the middle of the night, I was awakened by what sounded very much like chewing. The chewing of little teeth on who knew what, in another and distant part of the boat.

My hope that what I heard was imaginary or was one of those transient boat noises that usually can be explained began to evaporate when I started finding subtle signs that something unwanted was aboard. And finally that hope disappeared altogether when one morning I found the plastic top of an oatmeal container quite thoroughly chewed up. I definitely was not alone.

Day-by-day more evidence of a stowaway began to pile up. It was no longer possible to just ignore this interloper, and there was no hope it would just go away. I was unsure whether I was dealing with a rat or a mouse, though when I began to find stowaway poop I became more convinced that this was a mouse. Or, more likely, mice. Now, given a choice, I wouldn’t want either rats or mice aboard, but between the two, I’d pick the latter.

My foray into the world of rodent traps and poisons and all the rest began at a Super Walmart on the way back from a tiny house show at the Florida State Fair Grounds. While they didn’t have anything equivalent to a live-catch trap, there were some high-tech “quick-kill” traps, along with a range of more conventional mouse and rat traps, poisons, glue strips, and high-pitched sonic devices that claimed to make the pests nuts and drive them away. Thinking that technology would get the better of these small-brained critters, I opted for the high-tech traps, as well as one traditional and huge rat trap, in case I had misjudged what I was dealing with.

Well, you know how they say pride cometh before a fall? Well, that might be the moral of my story, that night and many nights to come. I loaded up my high-tech traps with oatmeal (which the critters had already shown a preference for) and (falling for the old, though not necessarily accurate, cliché) some cheese. I set them out in places the creatures seemed to frequent, turned out the light that night, and headed to bed, visions of trapped mice lurking in my head.

Well, that’s the only place there were trapped mice, since the next morning the mice had completely ignored the high-tech traps, preferring to tear up the paper wrapping on yet another oatmeal container, chewing through the plastic top of that one, too. At that point, I castigated myself for falling for some British high-tech trap that might or might not work on Euro mice but had no apparent attraction for American ones. Now it would be war, and we were going to go low-tech and count on good old American spring traps to get the little bastards. Or so I thought.

I went online and found a site that described seven mistakes commonly made in trying to trap rodents. I followed that guidance (well, six points of it, anyway – I decided I didn’t have time to put out unset traps for a few nights for the mice to get used to them) and did the things the site recommended. I set four low-tech traps and four middle-tech traps to join the three high-tech ones. I was now up to 11 traps of four different types. The mice wouldn’t stand a chance.

Just as I was climbing into my berth in the aft stateroom that night, I heard a huge crash that originated forward in the dinette area. When I went to look, I saw the rodents had knocked over several of my champagne flutes, breaking one. Now the creatures, still not visible, had joined the fray, and I went back to the berth and to sleep with the rodents very much on my mind. So much so that I dreamt that I heard traps going off in the night, and in the morning I found squashed mice in the traps. I pictured taking their semi-liquefied remains to the railing and dropping them overboard. Ah, victory, sweet victory.

In my dreams. The reality that confronted me when I awoke the next morning was something different. Entirely different. Not a single trap had been sprung, but the mice had had a fine old time making a mess of things. My victory was all a mirage that took place in my sleeping mind. I could almost hear the mice, or whatever the hell they were, laughing at me. If you’ve ever seen Roadrunner cartoons, you know how Wile E. Coyote plots endlessly to catch the Roadrunner, but the Roadrunner beats him at his own game every time. I was now thinking of myself as Wile E. Coyote, and the Roadrunner was winning.

Now it was time to pull out all the stops. Another foray to find more, and more kinds, of traps, which I did at Lowe’s this time. I escalated to 17 traps of six different varieties, all over the galley area. It was a veritable minefield out there. The little bastards couldn’t walk across it without setting off a trap. I even put out the giant rat trap, in case I was dealing with something bigger than a mouse, and almost lost a few fingers when trying to set it, sending peanut butter flying all over the place. Why don’t they put warnings on these things?

Well, the Roadrunner won the next round, too. Somehow the mice or whatever they were found their way through the minefield. They even set off one of the low-tech traps, flipping it upside down, but there was nothing in it when I looked. That morning I consulted with someone who is something of an expert on capturing rodents, and he suggested coffee cans with torn-up toilet paper in the bottom. The idea being that the mice would climb or fall into the cans and then not be able to get out. Sounded like a neat solution, one he said worked for him. Meanwhile I was receiving such suggestions as getting a cat (but then, I retorted, I’d be left with a cat, and I didn’t know which was worse), poison (which doesn’t always work and, if it did, might leave me with dead mice squirreled away in some obscure place smelling up the boat for weeks), and using such things of dubious efficacy as the sound devices and glue strips. I thought of getting a gun and blowing the critters away, but the fear of blasting a hole in the hull with more severe consequences than those caused by some rodents deterred me from that.

Besides, between the traps and the coffee cans, something had to work. Clearly, I had overwhelming deadly force on my side, so I would win and the rodents would lose, right? Hmmm, as it turned out, not so much. Meanwhile, I had taken to telling myself not to dream of mice before going to sleep, not wishing to raise more false images of success.

Wile E, Coyote’s first victory came yesterday morning. When I got up, I found all three of the high-tech traps sprung, but nothing in any of them. What the hell? And that’s when – picture my surprise – I saw it, the small gray critter crouching on the shelf down below the oatmeal containers. It appeared to be injured, probably from one of the traps, but it was loose and not entrapped. I’m not much of a rodent expert (in case you haven’t figured that out yet), and my estimate was that either it was a big mouse or a very small rat. Probably a big mouse. I managed to sequester this cowering little beast, whatever it was, in one of those coffee cans, and put the top on it. By the time I was done, the whole dinette area looked like a war zone, littered with chewed cereal boxes, traps, torn paper, and the results of general rodent war entropy.

I later took the sequestered thing off to an abandoned shed nearby that was the territory of a bunch of feral cats. They would know what do to with it. But when I checked later in the day, not a cat was to be seen, the furry critter was curled up sleeping where I had left it, and I didn’t know what to do. Okay, maybe the cats would be back after dark. It was now Wile E. Coyote 1, Roadrunner 8. At least it wouldn’t be a shut-out.

Last night I heard a trap snap. It was one of the original high-tech traps, and when I went to move it, there was a small mouse – now I was positive it was a mouse, not a rat – caught in it, seemingly caught by the face fur. It appears the mice are faster than the traps which, I assure you, are very fast, just not fast enough. I took the trap to the aft rail, lifted the snap bar, and let the mouse fall overboard. I didn’t know what to expect, but when it hit the water the thing started swimming like crazy. Back toward the boat. In the darkness it wasn’t clear what happened to it, but I hope when it finally got to shore it had enough mouse sense not to try to re-board the boat. Okay, now it was Wile E. Coyote 2, Roadrunner 8.

A little later I heard more traps snap. I went to look, and all three of the high-tech traps had been tripped, but nary a mouse was in any of them. That’s when I saw another of the furry beasts, sitting there pretending like it had been injured. But when I went to sequester it like its brethren earlier in the day, it showed itself to be anything but injured, and it took off running, crossed the dinette table at record speed, and then disappeared as if into space. In case you don’t know, there are about a million hiding places on a boat, and as many finger holes and other ways into these hiding places, and this guy knew exactly how to take advantage of one of those finger holes. So I set some traps loaded with peanut butter and chocolate chips right next to the more likely holes through which the escapee would have to come up. Bring it on, baby, bring it on.

Later, another snap. One of the traps I set near the holes had been tripped, turned upside down and spewing more peanut butter around. It didn’t look like a mouse had been trapped, but at that hour I really didn’t care to look. More prepared this morning, I finally lifted the trap and, not to great surprise, all that was in it was some residual peanut butter. But no mouse.

Somehow the little bastards managed to trip more of the high-tech traps without getting caught and didn’t go near any of the others besides the one tripped near the finger hole on the floor. They also seemed to be extending their territory, and today I am finding mouse poop in places it had never been before, beyond the dinette and galley. Later, I went to that shed to check on the mouse I had relocated yesterday, and thankfully it was gone. Probably some predator, a cat, a raccoon, a bird, maybe even a rat, did what predators do. That’s the way of nature. But meanwhile I had lost further ground, and now the score stands at Wile E. Coyote 2, Roadrunner 10. A betting person would have his money on the Roadrunner, though I’m not about to throw in the towel, even if we have to go into overtime.

So what, perhaps you ask, have I learned from my battle with these little beasts? One thing, I can say, is how clever they are. Now I’m not about to give them credit for having some sort of superior intelligence, but they are certainly clever and seem capable of learning about dangers (in the form of traps) and how to outsmart them (with their seemingly amazingly speedy reflexes) and to drive their involuntary human hosts nuts (as I’ve described). I might say they’re arguably more clever than some people I’ve known. I’ve also learned they are resilient, and are not deterred either by the adversity posed by a human or the risk of death or capture. And I’ve learned that they are pretty good swimmers, even after being released into chilly brackish water from the jaws of a trap, and they know which way to swim to get to shore.

Like many other life forms deemed lesser to us, whether rodents, bacteria, viruses, cockroaches, moths, mosquitoes, or terrorists, they just keep going and going and going. I’ve watched videos where mice climb over dead compatriots to get to the peanut butter, and the unquenchable pursuit of their own perceived self-interest seems to be hard-wired into them. There is no time for hand (or paw) wringing, no time for tears, no time for fear. Just keep going, survive, look out for yourself above all others, and in that way the species survives.

I don’t know how much applicability all this has for our own survival, but I’m confident there is some. The drive to keep moving, to not let emotion get in the way of doing the necessary, the ability to use clever, if simple, means to outfox our opponents, are all useful human survival techniques. And the overwhelming determination to survive above all else is one of those qualities that we see among human survivors, just as I’ve seen it in the mice.

I can’t say that I have any affection for these little beasts, but I have developed a certain respect for them, as one can learn to respect a worthy opponent. I’m determined to overcome them and rid the boat, my domain, of them, but it is going to take more effort and more cleverness, by far, than initially I had bargained for.

One other thing I think I have learned is that the way to beat a mouse is through its appetite, which appears to be the one weak link in the species’ survival instinct. The willingness of the mice to play Russian roulette with the traps just to get at a drop of peanut butter or a carrot slice will ultimately prove to be their undoing. It may take just the right trap, just the right bait, and just the right set of circumstances to slow a mouse’s reaction time or the ability to extricate itself from the path of the trap bar, and it loses.

Now I’m feeling hungry as I contemplate this last point on the Mouse War learning curve, and I think about how much trouble appetite and hunger can get us into. While I won’t have to dodge a kill bar to sate my appetite, not this time, anyway, it’s another lesson, for sure, of the mice to be learned, and absorbed.