Essay by Pat Walsh
Wildlife – June 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine
I have two strange things to tell you.
One. There is a mouse living in my car.
Two. I don’t mind.
I’m not supposed to like this situation. First, I’m a woman and we all know that women hate rodents even more than men do, and that’s saying a lot. Emphasis on the word “rodent.” I’ll come back to that later.
Furthermore, it’s just not natural to have a creepy little animal skittering around in your car, leaving little turds like presents in unexpected places. It’s not even SANITARY, for God’s sake. And of course every time the mouse runs over my ankle while I’m driving down a street at night (we’re up to three or four such fly-bys I’ve lost count) it could cause a collision.
OK, so the first time he (I’m pretty sure it’s a he. I’ll come back to that later) tiptoed over my non-driving hand resting on the night-darkened seat, I did jump just a little. Then I started to laugh. The mouse had already been living in my car for weeks by that time. I’d seen and heard the proof, and also had an actual albeit brief daylight sighting. A close encounter of the physical kind had to happen eventually.
So how did I end up in this bizarre situation?
Well, I make my living at the moment saving rodents of a larger species. These rodents let’s emphasize the “R” word again, it’s so much fun — also accurately answer to the titles of “mammals” and “ground squirrels.” I’m talking about the West’s most dreaded RODENT, the prairie dog.
I currently work in prairie dog relocation. I trap them, help monitor them while they are in captivity, and help release them to a new site to live out their lives free of poison, bulldozers, high-powered rifles, shovels, or suction devices. (As you may or may not know, any and all of these are legal ways to kill prairie dogs in Colorado and other places).
At the holding area, prairie dogs are fed grain. Mice also like grain and aren’t too proud to take freebies. One of these hangers-on apparently was hanging out inside a transport kennel that I picked up and put in my car. My little round-eared friend (Just like Mickey!) apparently found my messy car, with grain scattered on the floor, to be the next best thing to his old digs. And so I acquired Miles, my High Mileage Mouse.
I WAS DISCONCERTED at first. I mean, it WAS weird, for all the reasons listed above. Then, I don’t know, once I realized it wasn’t a pregnant female about to create a population explosion in my car, well, I kind of got used to (I assume) him. Hantavirus, a truly serious disease spread in the feces of deer mice, wasn’t a concern because my carpooling friend is a house mouse. And after my first instinctive reaction to an unknown touch in the dark, I began looking forward to these affirmations. He’s still OK, I think. He’s still here.
At night after a day at work, I park my car and before I close the door behind me, I call “Sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite.” During the day, I have someone to rant to about the stupid driver in front of me, or with whom to discuss the vagaries of my life. A week or two ago, as I sat in my car monitoring traps, Miles came out for a prolonged daytime appearance. He is one healthy mouse: sleek coat, bright eyes. (He should be, considering the chow.) He checked me out from the back seat, then went back into hiding.
One of the responses I get when I try to talk to some folks about prairie dogs is “They’re just rodents.” Or “They’re just rats.” Why is it in our culture it’s OK to label some animals as evil and unworthy to live? In conversations, I point out to people that tree squirrels and chipmunks are also rodents, but you almost never see a newspaper article that refers to them that way. On the other hand, I dare you to find an article about prairie dogs that does not use the “R” word.
I know a woman who loves rodents so much she has a license plate that says “AH RATS.” My pet theory is our culture hates rodents (as well as things like cockroaches) because some of them are like people: they eat anything and breed a lot.
This is not true of prairie dogs, who breed only once a year and eat wildflowers and grasses. And this particular rodent is critical to dozens of prairie animals, many of whom are going down on the sinking ship of this disappearing species (ferruginous hawks, burrowing owls, black-footed ferrets, etc.)
Miles, of course, does not represent a threatened species. His disappearance would only affect one other animal.
Pat Walsh is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). She lives on Colorado’s Front Range.