Sunday, June 15, 2014

Of Mice and Cat

I've always loved having companion animals.  One of my goals as a kid was to be a safe house for wayward animals.   "Wayward" had many evolving definitions throughout the years.  You know like, when I was 8 I thought it was a good idea to try to catch wild rabbits in the winter because I didn't want them to be cold.  And before you're like, "WHAT! HOW AWFUL!" let me remind you of three things:

1) I was 8
2) I never caught any rabbits
3) My cognitive skills were so advanced at that time that I thought the rabbit poop I found in my yard was actually coconut seeds that had magically appeared in the cold winters of Chicago.*

Wrong.  Coconut seeds.  

Eventually as I got older, I realized that "wayward" meant animals who were either in shelters or were being given away by people I knew, or were feeder animals.   That's not to say every single animal I had was from one of the aforementioned places, but I just couldn't imagine my life without animals in it.  I loved caring for and getting to know them.  

In fact, when I left home to go to college, I was completely devastated that I had to leave my cat Andi behind (at home).  We had an incredible relationship.  The worst part was I had a preview that summer of how Andi would react to me leaving for long periods of time.  I'd spent 5 weeks in British Columbia on an academic marine mammal course, and in that time my beloved cat pulled out all of the fur on her stomach and on the inside of her forearms and legs.  Despite multiple diagnostic tests run on this condition, the vet had ruled out all options except for (in his words) "Intense Distress."

It was awful, leaving her.  But I had to go.  

The regal Ms. Andi.

In the middle of my freshman year, I decided it was just impossible to live life without a companion animal.  It's probably a good time to mention that pets were uh, not allowed in the dorms.  But I didn't care, because this need for companionship of the non-Homo sapien variety surely transcended any university policy.

After discussing this with my roommate (also an animal lover), I decided to adopt a couple of mice.  I've mentioned them in previous blogs, mostly because of their names (Dunk and Donut), and they were amazing female fancy mice who were intelligent and affectionate and loved to eat peas.  Plus, their poop was extremely tiny which is always a plus in the animal world, especially when you deal with sea lions on a regular basis.  

It's not an animal trainer blog without mention of poop

My love of mice blossomed over the next year and a half.  I got a couple more, extremely careful to only get females because I obviously didn't want a mouse explosion.   So Chips and Dip, and later Jelly and Bean came into my life.  In fact, when I went home for longer breaks, they came with me and my cat actually took naps curled around their habitat.  She watched them a lot, too.  She never tried to hunt them (but I also wasn't stupid enough to let the mice out when she was in the room).  

The only picture I have on my computer of my mice! :(  Dunk with my roommate's dog

I took the mice on vacations with me, too.  Once in a while it didn't make sense to take them with me, so a friend or roommate would watch them.  But those sweet little gals traveled a lot.  I really loved them.

But as many of our animal companions tend to do, the mice passed away after two years of living with me.  By the time I was a junior in college,  Jelly was the only mouse I had left.  I was getting ready to move to Clearwater to do my marine mammal internship and knew I would take Jelly with me (and Andi, too!).  Even though Andi provided a bizarre form of companionship, I knew I had to get Jelly a couple of mice buddies as they are very social animals.  The problem was, with Jelly being a very old lady, I didn't want to just get ONE friend for her, only to have the same problem once Jelly passed away.  So I decided I'd get two females roughly the same age, which would solve all of my mice problems and there would be peace and harmony in the Universe of Rust.

Fancy mice are fancy!!!

A few days before my dad and I drove to Clearwater, I adopted two female mice.  They were two feeder mice, because I was feeling particularly noble.  The pet store had two terrariums with feeder mice: one said "male", the other said, "female."  It stood to reason that I should trust the signage, but one could never be too careful.  I double-checked with the store clerk, who assured me that they did not want to breed the mice, so they kept the sexes separate.

And so, Marshmallow and Fluff came out with me and became fast friends with Jelly.  

My dad and I began the long drive from Chicago to Clearwater, the mice and cat in tow.  I spent a lot of time fussing over Andi, who had never been in a car this long in her life.  While I'd made sure the mice had plenty of water and food, and that their bedding was dry and clean, I didn't really spend a lot of time checking them out.   I mean, I was the crazy Mouse Lady** who traveled all the time with mice, so I figured my energy was better spent dealing with my poor cat who had no idea what was going on.

So by the time my dad and I stopped at a hotel and snuck the animals in (whoops!), it'd been roughly 11 hours since I'd actually seen the Jelly, Marshmallow and Fluff.

I opened the lid to their habitat and peered in.


I panicked.  Jelly and Fluff were curled up, sleeping in their little cute mouse shelter thing that looked like an igloo.   But Marshmallow was nowhere to be found.

The sinking feeling in my gut told me that she'd escaped.  Or....died.

I forced myself to start looking for her, and with a feeling of terrible dread began to gently push away the bedding in the habitat........

.......and found eight squirming, hairless, pink baby mice, with Marshmallow curled around them.  She looked up at me like, "Look what I did!!!!"

Oh god

DOUBLE U TEE EFF.  These are all females!!!  The dude at the pet store swore up and down that was the case, and that they'd never been with males.

Dr. Malcom's voice (you know, the best character on Jurassic Park except for the velociraptors which are actually more like deinonychus but who's counting) played in my head.  

Preach it, brother.

"No, morons find a way," my brain interjected.  "Those mice probably were with other males before they were separated at the pet store.  Or the person at the pet store lied.  Or they misidentified a mouse here or there."

Sigh.  What did it matter? I now had eleven mice to take care of.  

A week passed, and the little pinkies grew and started to get a little bit of white fuzz on them.  They were really starting to get cute.  And I was starting to feel confident I could handle this massive amount of mice, especially once they were old enough for me to sex them.  I'd just have a two big habitats with all male and all female mice.  No big deal.

I came home from my internship, now feeling like I knew the routine and I was finally driving home without getting lost.  I felt really good.  I walked into my apartment, said hello to my cat, then went to check on the mice.  

I found a lump in the bedding.  It pulsed and seethed.  But the little mice were in the opposite corner. Jelly and Marshmallow were tending to them and...I couldn't....find...Fluff....

....until I found her.  And twelve.  Twelve.  TWELVE.  TWELVE NEWBORN MICE.  TWELVEEEEEE

Take 2

Remember Kitty/Puppy Surprise? The stuffed animals that had babies inside, but you never knew how many you'd get?  The best thing ever was when you'd get a Kitty Surprise and you got the Maximum Number of Kittens.  You really felt like you won the lottery, like you'd one-upped The Corporate Man because you got eight toys, while your BFF only got five for the SAME PRICE. 

Surprise!! We totally gipped you!

The moment I found Fluff's massive litter I remembered this Kitty Surprise feeling and immediately thought, "This is like Mouse Surprise", which was quickly followed by this thought:

"This is not fun in real life." (There may have been a few other choice words thrown in for effect).

But what could I do?  Seriously?  I mean, those little mice had the same right to be here as anyone.  Just because I made a stupid decision to trust a pet store didn't mean the little mice had to lose their lives.  But how the hell was I going to manage taking care of 23 mice?

I did all the research I could over the next few days.  I learned how to sex the babies once they got old enough, and started saving my pennies so I could buy a bunch of new terrariums so they'd have enough room to live comfortably.  In fact, at one point I was buying a new mouse house a week, watching my pitiful amount of money (of course, the internship wasn't paid) disappear.

But oh my god, were those baby mice ADORABLE once their eyes opened and they got all of their fur.  Their heads were gigantic, but their bodies very small, and I just fell completely in love with them.  When they got of age to sex them, I had carefully checked each one, and rechecked them, and rechecked them.  


Sexing baby mice early is critical, because you have to separate them before they can breed, which is roughly 9 seconds after they are sexually mature.  So let's just say their uh, parts aren't totally discernible.   Telling boys from girls apart at this age requires a series of supernatural powers that are only found in fiction and occasionally New York subways.  This is hilarious because once the mice are mature it's virtually impossible NOT to tell them apart, mostly because the boys look like they're carrying a giant pillow on their butt.  But once they get to that stage, it's way too late.  They've probably knocked up their female companions and now you'll learn a lesson in exponential math.

Sexing the baby mice was like discerning one minor difference in these donuts.  It was impossible, mostly because I ate them (the donuts) before further study 

Somehow, I managed to get all of the babies correctly sexed.  

Phew! You might think.  What a great ending to this story!

But oh, that's not the end.

I ran out of plastic and glass terrariums.  I was like the small mammal version of Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs.  Everywhere you looked, there was a mouse house.  But as the little guys grew, I needed bigger and bigger habitats.  I bought a small wire rat house that I thought had the appropriate bar spacing, but one of the little females kept getting out and digging into my (rental) couch.  I had to throw that away and buy more terrariums.  They kept stacking up.  Because I refused to just feed them cheap, low-quality food, I spent a ton of money on their diet.  The bedding was insane; I had to change it every day and I went through it like poop through an otter.

This is what I was turning into.  Sort of. Without the skin suit.

The show Hoarders wasn't yet in existence, but I could've been their pilot episode.

I put up some ads in the aquarium, hoping someone would like to adopt some of my mice.  I refused to turn them over to someone who'd make them feeders.  I know, I know, snakes et. al. gotta eat.  I'm just saying that those particular 23 individuals were not going to become snake food.  I had a responsibility for those little guys!

But I was totally overwhelmed by their care, and wrought with worry about what would happen to them.  Would I really have this many mice for 2 to 3 years?  What if I wound up with a mouse romance of Romeo and Juliet proportions and they decide they want to raise a large family and I end up with three zillion white mice who take over the house and kick me out on the street but still expect me to pay the bills because they have no credit line?


I had nightmares every night that I'd forget about one terrarium of mice.  And one day, my nightmare became reality.  Jelly (who by that time was almost three) and a couple of the young male mice died, and I lost it.  I knew I couldn't take care of all of these little creatures.  But no one answered my ads.  No pet store would take them. 

I finally called the Humane Society, knowing it was a long shot. But as it happens in these kinds of situations, where you think all hope is lost, it turned out to be the best thing I ever did.  They told me about a woman named Penny who did Rodent Rescue in St. Petersburg.  Rodent rescue! My faith in humanity restored, I called Penny and explained to her my situation.

"Well," she said.  "It just so happens that I need a lot of mice for a project I'm doing with the school district!"

She explained to me that she wanted kids to appreciate rodents and not look at them as pests, or animals whose lives were value-less.  And she told me she'd care for the mice until they died from old age.  I felt immensely relieved.  I decided it was best to give Penny all of the mice, even Marshmallow and Fluff, because I felt like the worst mouse mom ever.  When I met Penny in person, she was a warm and caring person (and turns out was a licensed wildlife rehabber, too!) who had a passion for rats and mice.  She introduced me to her rats who lived like royalty, and showed me the setups she had for my mice (keeping the boys and girls separate, of course).

Be Nice To Mice day is November 22nd!

While I felt great about how my little 22 white mice family would be taken care of, I was still sad when I left them.  But I felt good about sticking to my ethics; I had to preserve their little lives and ensure their well-being, no matter how inconvenient or stressful it was for me.  I know that those mice have long since transitioned to a more ethereal plane (Mouse Heaven, perhaps), but I hope that they had the best lives that pet mice could have.  

I suppose the point is that sometimes we wind up in situations due to circumstances somewhat or completely out of our control.  The only thing to focus on is what you can control while maintaining your ethics; not giving in to hopelessness, or taking the easy (and not-so-kind) way out for a quick fix.  I'm so grateful to have learned this lesson with a bunch of adorable mice, because they are what made me stay the course.  Had this been something that did not affect actual LIVES, I might've taken an easier path.  

But those fuzzy little nuggets forced me to stay true.   :) 

Side note: Pony Surprise seems biologically impossible

* And I planted these "coconut seeds" to no avail

** Scientifically proven to be crazier than Cat Ladies

1 comment:

  1. Puppy surprise! Oh my goodness...I remember that.