This morning while Sue was off at swim practice, I kept hearing an odd thumping sound downstairs. It was intermittent, so I reasoned that one of our 20-somethings was up making breakfast or fulfilling some other mission on their often unpredictable agenda.
Instead, I learned, once Sue got home, that our cat Bennie had caught and captured a mouse in the basement. He apparently played with it a while and then deposited it on the landing where it could not be missed. A gift, it seems, for the woman that he loves.
I’ve seen before what happens when Bennie plays with his prey. He bats it up and down the central hallway in a fit of feline joy. This was perhaps the fourth mouse he’s discovered and dispatched in our two years of living in this home. He patrols the basement, which is where mice tend to show up. But they don’t stand a chance of survival in our house.
I know how astute this cat can be at mouse-catching. I play a game with Bennie when he’s up on our bed. I reach below the covers and make the smallest scratching noise possible. Bennie tracks it down and pounces. Sometimes I’ll give him a tussle by wrestling with him through the covers with my fingers. He’ll use all four paws at that point to fight back.
Sue doesn’t mind the ‘mouse in the house’ thing all that much. She once lived in an Oak Park apartment where mice were a consistent presence. Neither were dead things uncommon in the Batavia house in which I lived for 20 years. I’d often come back from runs carrying a dead bird or some other interesting creature to be placed in the freezer for future study as part of my wildlife art.
I know: that’s illegal as hell. Wildlife protection laws, especially those governing migratory birds, are designed to prevent people from possessing dead creatures without a license. My claim was to an artistic license. I used those bird skins to create my paintings, thus celebrating the life of that bird in ways that educated others. So there.
People have suggested to me over the years that picking up dead animals holds a risk of contracting a disease, infection or infestation. But I’ve not had a single problem with handling dead creatures. That dates all the way back to 1976 when I studied field biology at Luther College and stuffed several dozen animals, birds and fish.
Yet a few years back I did get a disturbing infection from the bite of one of our cats. It turned into cellulitis. That required treatment with antibiotics, which killed my good gut bacteria. That led to a dangerous condition call C-diff, which required even more medication. So don’t lecture me about handing dead mice. A live house cat can be much more dangerous.
The strangest aspect of doing taxidermy back in the day was the close resemblance between the smell of cooking the flesh of the skulls of wild creatures and the similar odors coming from the cafeteria food I’d make at the college union. We’re not so civilized a race of creatures as we’d like to believer.
And talk about wild experiences. One day while working dish I was at the front of the line taking glass items off cafeteria trays when my friends from biology class placed the head of a dead squirrel head on a plate with salad garnish and sent it into the dishroom. When that squirrel with its orange teeth pried wide open to be clamped around a bright orange carrot came rolling into the dish room, the girl standing next to me swooned and fell away from her position.
All I could do is laugh and brush the ghastly squirrel head into the trash bin before the grumpy old lady dishroom manager named Gladys could see the prank.
The point of these stories is simple: Most of us are so separated from the realm of dead things in our daily lives we take for granted that our food is killed for us by someone else. Thus I get that people who like to hunt for game are a bit disgusted by the fact that people are critical of their pursuits. I’m admittedly no fan of trophy hunters who shoot rare animals, but for people who hunt deer or shoot geese I find no complaint. There are plenty of those to go around.
One of my Resident Assistant dorm managers at Luther was a hunter who annually cooked up a delicious wild game dinner each fall. We’d eat pheasant, grouse, squirrel, rabbit and a few other wild critters. It was fun.
Thus I’ve hesitated to take mice away that our hunter Bennie catches in our basement. Typically I let him play with them for a while. There’s certainly no harm in that. Cats are hunters by nature. The thing I do protest is people letting their cats roam around outside where they kill billions of wild birds each year. That is wasteful and frankly, a human travesty.
So is the waste of wildlife caused by road kill. Recently I stopped during a run to photograph a wild mink that had been struck by a vehicle while trying to cross a road between two wetland areas. The mink may well have been hit while crossing the road on a dark night. No chance of a driver ever seeing it in those conditions.
Yet distracted drivers have also almost hit me while riding my bike. Cyclists seem to be viewed by some motorists as a form of wildlife that is beneath their province. If a cyclist gets hit on the road, so what? It’s inevitable, right?
“Just stay out of my way” is the uncivilized death chant of the terminally selfish in this world.
Most people likely never know how close they truly live to many species of wildlife. The animals that live near humans are typically adaptable creatures by nature, know how to hide and prefer to avoid us by any means possible. Yet almost every American suburb has its share of skunk and rabbits, opossums, raccoons and armadillos. Over in Australia there are kangaroos and koalas living near people. In other countries it might just be rats. That’s certainly the case right here in Chicago, Illinois. I’ve seen rats as big as cats in the city.
In all these cases, the benefits of living near humans ultimately outweighs the risks. Until cats intervene, that is, and there are far too many feral cats in this world. That’s one of the tarsnakes of keeping cats as pets. Some of them escape or are born into the wild. That upsets the natural balance of an ecosystem of many places in the world.
Yet is why it is fascinating to watch one of our cats sitting by the back door watching chipmunks chip and flick their tails at them two feet away. There’s a boundary between the domestic and wild worlds that is best kept intact.
It is however poignant that crossing that boundary as human beings is perhaps vital toward taking care of our mental health and well-being. Getting our ‘nature fix’ is one way to relieve the stress of modern living with all its fake and fractured modalities, information overloads and perversions of reality and unreality.
Yet for some folks, the act of petting a cat or a dog on the sofa is enough wildness to satisfy that need. For others, and that includes me, it is important to get out where the rules are not so well-defined and contained by civilization. I crave the wild call of a sandhill crane over a marsh. I love the tracks of a deer in the spring mud, and the haunting hooting of a great horned owl in the dark. These things fulfill me.
So a touch of wildness in the downstairs hallway is not some offensive notion to me. The fact that a mouse knows how to get into our house is not a surprise either. They can compress themselves to a mere centimeter at times, and find every crevasse in the construction of our home.
But then Bennie finds those mice and puts an end to their adventures in domestic invasion. That’s a fair tradeoff if you ask me, and it’s been that way for thousands of years it seems.