Of Mice and Me: One animal lover’s struggle with rodents

John Steinbeck took the title “Of Mice and Men” from a poem by Robert Burns. The poem: To a Mouse, was written in 1785 and is about being tolerant and appreciating all forms of life, big and small. I try to live my life in this way but when it comes to rodents I have struggled mightily since moving to North Bend.

I am lucky to live in a wild area, on the Snoqualmie river, that is surrounded by much flora and fauna. Since coming here I’ve seen nearly every local wild animal there is in my yard, on the road or close by in the surrounding forest. I am instantly captivated by every outdoor encounter but unfortunately there are two members of the fauna community that keep trying to come indoors, our local rats and mice.

Washington State is home to at least 12 different species of mice and rats but those you are most likely to see in your home are the Norway rat, the Black rat, the house mouse and the deer mouse. The first three on that list are non-native or introduced species brought over on ships from Europe by early voyagers. Known as “old world” their dispersal is linked to human development and movement. Washington has no true native rats; the Bushy Tailed Woodrat is more closely related to mice.

If you have a rat in your kitchen likely it is a Norway rat (Rattus norvegicus.) Misnamed by an English naturalist, who thought they came to England from Norway via ship, it is neither from Norway nor more plentiful in that country. This creature came from Eurasia, specifically Siberia and China. It is approximately 16 inches in length, including tail, and can be grayish-brown, white, black, or occasionally mottled in color. They are ground dwellers and typically live in basements or on lower floors of buildings. They are excellent swimmers and are known to survive in sewers. Laboratory rats and fancy rats sold as pets are specially bred strains of this rat.

Norway rat Photo credit: Melissa Grant

The Black rat (Rattus rattus) is similar in length but smaller than the Norway rat. Originally from India it is an excellent climber and is more likely found in attics, roofs and upper floors of buildings. In the wild, Black rats live in cliffs, rocks, on the ground, and trees. Because of their excellent climbing ability, they are often found in orchards which earned them the nickname fruit rats.

Both animals have gestational periods of about three weeks and produce large litters. The Norway rat can have litters of 7 to 14 young throughout the year. While the Black rat has litters of up to 6 and can produce up to 40 young a year. They are both omnivorous. Rats are preyed upon by cats, owls, weasels, foxes and coyotes. They are the most successful mammal on the planet alongside humans.

The House mouse  (Mus musculus) is another non-native species in Washington State. Originally from Central Asia, they are now widespread across much of the world. Light brown to black, usually with lighter underparts they are up to 7.5 inches in length. Nocturnal creatures who are averse to bright light they live in a wide variety of places making their nests out of soft materials. The house mouse has been domesticated as the pet mouse and as the laboratory mouse.

Lastly, the only native species on the list to darken our doorsteps is the Deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus.) Similar in size to the house mouse they have large beady eyes and large ears giving them good sight and hearing. Present in most all North America, except for a few southeastern states, it prefers woodland habitat but can be found in desert landscapes. Also, nocturnal they spend their days nesting in trees or burrows made of plant material.

Deer Mouse

Both types of mice have gestational periods of about 3 weeks and produce 5-10 litters a year containing 3-14 young. Both are also omnivorous and are preyed upon by snakes, owls, weasels, foxes, cats and coyotes.

I’m not sure I’ve ever had a black rat in the house but over the years I have fought to expel the other three. Not an easy task when your house is ALWAYS under some sort of repair/construction, you must keep trash indoors away from bears, you live in the woods on the river and you like to feed birds.

 I love all animals so why have I fought so hard to keep these guys out? Two words recently covered extensively in the news: zoonotic diseases. Specifically rat bite fever, tularemia, hantavirus, lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus, leptospirosis, salmonellosis, yersiniosis, pathogenic E. coli infection and campylobacterosis. Those are a mouthful, eh? I won’t go into the details of each disease, some are worse than others, but I want no part of any of them. Then you have parasites on the rodents like fleas and ticks that cause other issues like Lyme disease and the Bubonic plague, no thank you.

So, what is an animal lover to do? Well if you’re me you first try exclusion and humane methods. I have WIFI cameras that ping my phone when they’re triggered so I set them up whenever I found a possible entry point. As you can see by my video mice can squeeze through impossibly tiny holes (dime sized for mice, quarter sized for rats) so that went on FOREVER. We would find and seal one point of entry, have a week or two of peace and then they (mostly mice over the years) would either find or create another hole. Because they are gnawers, mice and rats cause much damage, especially when they chew through insulation and wiring. Both critters can climb WALLS. I have another video of a rat coming down a WALL in a bathroom under construction like something out of an all rodent version of Mission Impossible. I won’t show it, you’d be haunted, trust me I was.

Ever trying to be humane for YEARS we live trapped. You can buy something called a tin cat at the hardware store that has a little teeter totter at the entry, so they run up, it slants down and they’re trapped but then what do you do? You can’t just release them, they’ll come right back. So, you drive them away and try to find a spot away from any other houses because that would be rude, right? Everything was in plastic bins; food trash was sealed in a can…. we tried, hard.

But they destroyed linens, pooped everywhere and destroyed my pantry. So, the day came when we decided we had to start lethally controlling them. Considering all our options I discarded glue traps as inhumane. Glue traps rip skin and fur off the animals’ bodies as they try to escape, and the animal may even chew off their own legs trying to get free. They suffer for days before finally dying, nope, not happening.

Although I know some extreme conditions may call for using poisoned bait, in a best-case scenario the animal can die in a spot that can’t be reached (like inside a wall), causing a bad smell. And in a worst-case scenario could attract a pet or even a child. Not to mention the very real side effect of secondary poisoning of our local wildlife. No matter what anyone tells you there is NO safe poison but in extreme circumstances there are some first-generation safer poisons. All poison carries some risk to children, pets and wildlife.

In the end we decided on electronic traps for the mice and snap traps in the two instances rats managed to get in. The electronic trap sends out a strong current that is powerful enough to kill any rodent that steps in the trap. On average, they send out 8000 Volts killing the animal quickly and humanely. You can then pick up the entire trap and slide the animal into the trash or over into a ravine like we do. You never touch or see much of the dead rodent.

Rats however are apparently too smart and suspicious to fall for the electronic traps so twice we had to resort to old fashioned snap traps. Hard to set and gruesome I was glad when those situations were resolved, and I hope to never have to use them again.

Despite their bad press, rats and mice do have their positive side. Fictional rodents such as Mickey Mouse, Ben, Stuart Little and Mr. Jingles have entertained us in books and movies for decades. Real life rodents like gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, rats and mice are kept as pets and teach children many good lessons about compassion and responsibility.

Some rodents are rarely seen by humans but are valuable parts of ecosystems through seed dispersal, soil aeration and plant pollination. They also play an important role in the food web as a prey animal for many other species. Even if you disagree with their use in laboratory experimentation there is no denying their contribution to scientific and medical advances. Giant pouched rats in Africa are being scent trained to find land mines and detect tuberculosis.

According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s species fact sheet on rats “It is difficult to permanently rat-proof a structure—when houses settle new opportunities for reentry open up, and rats can chew a hole into or burrow under an unprotected structure at any time.” Sigh, yup and I’d say the same goes for mice. I’ll keep trying to keep them outside and safe where they should be.

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  • You can definitely see your enthusiasm within the article you write.
    The sector hopes for more passionate writers like you who are not afraid to say how they believe.
    At all times follow your heart.

  • I had a similar problem with mice last winter, except they kept trying to live in our cars. I wound up using live catch traps and would catch one or two at a time, drive them miles away from my house, and release them in an open field. Over the course of two weeks, I caught five in my car and three in my daughter’s. One time I made the mistake of only walking about 10 feet away from my car before I released the mouse which promptly outran me back to my car, climbed up the tire and disappeared into the engine. I had to catch it all over again the next day. Fortunately they can’t seem to resist peanut butter. We can no longer keep granola bars in the emergency kits in our cars. They found them and ate them. One day, I forgot to put the trap back in my car and accidentally left the set trap sitting on top of my hose reel. I woke up to find a chipmunk stuffed inside. At least I didn’t have to take it on a road trip before I set it free. So far this year the mice haven’t come back. Fingers crossed.

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