Although you wouldn’t know it from the fabulous northern German weather, summer is in full swing. The farmers are harvesting the wheat and the rye with their crazy, big, almost self-driving machines. The sparrows are feeding fledglings and quarreling like crazy. The sparrows are racing circles in the barn, just having fun while showing their newly fledged chicks how to fly. (Which is a major win! – Last year the chicks all died hurling themselves out of the nest with about a week to go before fledging, having been bitten by this horrible, horrible tick or mite or whatever it is that often infests their nests and has jaws of steel.)
And the rats living in tunnels under the chicken coop have reached truly epic proportions and the poor chocolate hen who is sitting on eggs alone in the outside coop made especially for broody hens that become mother hens and their chicks has gone from sitting on 6 eggs to sitting on 3, and it would be 2 if some other hen hadn’t snuck in and laid an egg that was later stolen and eaten as well. There are ten days to go until hatching, so it’s not looking good for any eggs making it to that point.
The hedgehogs are also seriously underway, snorting at each other under the cover of our explosively growing garden at all hours of the day and night and costing us a fortune in cat food. (Although, I think the neighbor’s cat Paul is helping too, because the food I leave out for my cats up on a table because hedgehogs can’t climb is also disappearing at an alarming rate.) Here’s the photo of the gigantic hedgehog that zoomed into the barn at the beginning of our Saturday evening movie night. Ha ha! It was immediately like – Crap! What have I done?! All these people!!! – and curled itself up and hoped for the best.
Spouse put gloves on and took the kilo or so of hedgehog outside and, eventually, once we went back to the movie (Ugh! The neighbors had made a special request for The Money Pit, which, especially dubbed into German, has got to be the most painfully horrible movie ever), the hedgehog wandered away (presumably back to the cat food dishes).
The evening before that, in the midst of all this summer, Spouse and I went for a short walk the half mile to the nearest Bronze Age (most likely) burial mound (which is about twenty feet high and thirty feet in diameter). On the way back, there was a baby mouse sitting on one of the concrete slabs that make up the double track farm vehicles can drive along (and cars use even more often). It was shivering, either from fear or from cold. It seemed to have no idea what to do.
“Mouse?” we asked it, but it just kept shivering.
We looked at each other. What should we do?
This was exactly where we’d seen a grown up mouse do the same thing a few weeks ago on our way to the burial mound. The adult mouse had had no response to us at all, even when we’d walked right up to it and told it it was crazy. But it was an adult mouse and presumably knew its own mind, so we left it there and when we returned 10 minutes later, it was gone. But this was a baby mouse and there was a car coming.
We looked at each other again. What to do?????
At the last moment, I picked the mouse up. I’d say that was the first fatal mistake, except that if I hadn’t and then stepped out of the car’s way, that mouse would have already been dead.
But now what? Put the mouse down and go home? Or bring it home and try to feed it for the few days it seemed to need to sort itself out.
I put it down on the ground. It just sat there, shivering.
What to do???? What to do????
Then I made fatal mistake #2. I picked it up and brought it home.
It was so tiny and so young. It probably still needed milk….?
I consulted Veterinarian Internet and figured out that it was a Wood Mouse (so cute!), but not how old it was, except that at 8 grams it probably didn’t still need milk. Probably. Also cow’s milk would give it diarrhea and then it would die.
I gave it a gooseberry from the garden, cut open, and some of our mixed grain chicken feed, and some water, but it wasn’t interested in any of it. It just wanted to sit in the warmth of my hand (even though my hands aren’t ever terribly warm).
Then I remembered that our alpaca neighbors often feed their cat kitten milk and Veterinarian Internet had said that was safe for mice. So, even though it was 9:30 at night, I wandered over (making fatal mistake #3) and knocked softly on their door, figuring if they weren’t still up, that was nicer than ringing their insanely loud doorbell.
They were still up, although the alpaca lady was in a flowing, flamboyant nightgown (she’s an artist and prone to such clothing) and two of her fingers were in a splint together and taped up all the way down past her wrist (or up past her wrist, depending on whether or not she was holding her hand upright or not). They didn’t have any kitty cat milk, but she did have condensed milk.
“But, um,” I said. “Cow’s milk will kill a mouse.”
Yes, yes, yes, she knew all about that. She’d raised two wild mice that one of her cats had dragged in from a couple of days old until they’d died of old age. Condensed milk was fine. It had been so cooked, all the bad proteins had been degraded.
“Um,” I said, not really believing that, but then I made fatal mistake #4 and accepted the container of condensed milk. She’d bottle fed two baby mice to adulthood. So it must have been okay (unless, of course, she’d used something else, like the goat’s milk and the kitty cat milk Veterinarian Internet had said was OK).
Fatal mistake #5, I took the condensed milk home, diluted it, warmed it up, and tried to feed it to the baby mouse using a tiny paint brush. The mouse didn’t want any of it. But – fatal mistake #6 – I persisted.
The next morning, things were still fine. It was such a sweet little mouse! So full of good cheer. And it just wanted body contact, loving to sleep in warm pockets or, better yet, in the fold of the shirtsleeve it had crawled up all the way to your bicep. It didn’t appear to have eaten any of the wheat or rye seeds I’d given it, nor any of the grass seeds I’d given it, nor any of the gooseberries, nor any of the porridge oats. So, fatal mistake #7, I carried on trying with the diluted, condensed milk. And it was thirsty enough to lick at it.
Fatal mistake #8 – I was so tired (long sad health battle story that does not need to be gotten into), getting into the car and driving the five miles to the tourist crammed grocery store to buy kitten milk did not happen.
The next morning, the mouse was beginning to look thin, like it was losing weight and was dehydrating. I weighed it. It was down to 6 grams. Not good. But I still couldn’t get it to eat anything and it definitely refused to have any more diluted condensed milk. Then, when Spouse, who is more forceful about these things, decided to really force feed it the milk, a little bit of wet poop came out. Which I didn’t know, was that a good sign (it had eaten something!) or a bad sign (diarrhea). At any rate, I took it as a sign that we had to find it something better to eat and, as I was feeling alive again, I hopped straight into the car the moment the stores opened (which, being a Sunday, was 11 (which was better than nothing at all – they were only open at all on Sunday because this is a tourist locale and so they have special dispensation from the government to do business on Sundays between 11 and 4)).
I came home with rodent food (which contained alfalfa pellets that I could turn into mash in water and hopefully easily feed to the mouse) and kitten milk, which I diluted and warmed. And at first the mouse was interested in those things. I also made up an oral rehydration solution using sugar, water, and salt in an officially recommended ratio.
Because at that point, the poor mouse was leaking liquid all over itself. And it had stopped grooming itself, so it was looking ratty as well as wretched. And it no longer wanted to do anything but lie against the warmth of skin.
And, as the afternoon progressed, things got worse faster and faster and faster and, in total so fast I didn’t grasp until way too late that this was a death spiral. Eventually the poor now very miserable mouse fell into a coma (total unresponsiveness). Then it got cold, colder than any little living creature has any right to grow. And you could see its heart through its ribcage struggling harder and harder to keep beating.
Then the poor little mouse grew as cold as ice – obviously (?) it had gone into shock from the dehydration (?). At the end of a day that had seen the mouse go from bright and shining to immobile, leaking, and miserable, it went into convulsions in my hand and died.
And it was all my fault. I had caused this. I had force marched that mouse down the road paved with good intentions straight to hell. Deep down inside I had known not to feed it the condensed milk, despite the advice of my neighbor, but I’d done it and that had poisoned this poor mouse to death after causing it hours of misery. In a deluge of tears of guilt and grief, I stumbled out to the backyard with the mouse still in my hand and buried it in the backyard, on a flower covered mound I’d created last year to add some interesting topography. But some creatures (rats? mice? snakes? toads?) had riddled the mound with tunnels, so I buried the mouse super shallow, under only a think layer of soil. Which meant of course that the next morning when Spouse asked where the mouse was buried, I discovered that the mouse was no longer buried there. Because everything here is hungry. (Which was the only moment of solace I’ve had from this. At least the mouse was returned to the food web, making it possible for something else to live another few minutes to a day of its life.) (But it was only a moment – I went almost immediately back to feeling absolutely rotten.)
I don’t know how people live through killing someone accidentally with their car (or even worse, having killed someone because they were drunk driving). And I cannot grasp what it must be like to be a parent whose child has died in a stupid accident that wouldn’t have happened if only they had (or hadn’t) done this or that little thing. Because I have been ripped to shreds by the guilt and horror of having accidentally stolen the whole life of a baby mouse. I am the reason that sweet mouse will never have the experiences of freedom, joy, mouse love, or parenthood. Yes, okay, it is/was just a mouse, but still, it was a living creature, with thoughts and feelings, and I caused it to suffer and die. It’s stupid (because it was just a mouse and I had been trying to save it), but I feel like a character in a Joseph Conrad story who has committed an act of unmanliness/cowardice with tragic consequences and he cannot find a way to forgive himself for that momentary sin and move on with his life. (Although, no, I am not planning to find my redemption in some subsequent suicidal act that saves the lives of many mice.)
And then, while I was still really reeling from the mouse episode, the whole fight over the issue of our rat infestation boiled over into a shouting match with Spouse that had me threatening to just leave and go back to where I came from because I. Had. Had. Enough. Nothing we’ve tried to deal with the infestation is working (every week there are just more and bolder rats) and the only thing we haven’t tried is poison. But I don’t want to poison any more rodents! The spring loaded traps (that they’ve learned to avoid) are horrific enough, even though they’re mostly generally instantly fatal. And given how fast little bodies get snapped up by birds and cats and who knows what other animals that roam through here in the night, a poisoned rat will go on to poison other members of the food web.
The only other thing we haven’t tried is doing what our across-ish the street neighbor Holger said the people where he grew up used to do (waaaaay back when), which was to catch one rat and then cook it alive right there where the other rats can hear its screeching. The sound of an excessively distressed rat is apparently a sure fire way of convincing them all to move out before the same horrible thing happens to them.
But, you know, cooking a rat alive is also over the line. Talk about never being able to forgive myself…
But I woke up this morning realizing that you can find everything on the internet. And sure enough, I found a 31 minute recording (thankfully not with the corresponding camera footage) of someone cornering and killing a rat, posted especially for use as a “humane” rat repellent. So I hooked up the bluetooth speaker and played it for about two minutes in front of the outdoor chicken coop with the three remaining (hopefully) gestating eggs and then in the indoor chicken coop the rats also steal eggs from and in the adjacent lawnmower room that they were previously nesting in before we figured it out and took the piles of kindling away. I don’t know if the racket scared any rats away – there was no wave of fifty or so rats legging it for the fields as I played it – but it sure scared the chickens and made Bertie Rooster run while making chicken distress calls. And it is a horrible thing to hear. There is no question about the distress of the rat in question. There is the bark of a dog that must have been there. Then there is a THUNK before the recording repeats.
I can only wonder what the neighbors thought I was up to out there.
I’ll play the horror again for longer, later, just in case, although I suspect the rats are smart enough to hear that the recording itself is just the same roughly 15 seconds of agony looped over and over again.
Anyway, RIP, little mouse. I am so, so sorry for what I did to you. I wish I could go back and just have put you down at the side of the road and let another mouse maybe find you and help you learn how to survive.
Sometimes I think I don’t have what it takes to live out in the countryside. With all this life here, there is so much death, even when Spouse is not having to mercy kill a chicken or do in a rooster that didn’t work out and even when I’m not inadvertently acting as an agent of karma (although what the hell had that baby mouse ever done to deserve meeting me?). And I will never, ever again believe anything my neighbor ever tells me is true, especially when she herself believes it with utter, unshakeable conviction but I have my suspicions.