The scream, sort of a cross between a banshee and a feral cat, streamed down the stairwell, thankfully interrupting the tile job I didn’t want to do anyway.
It was a scream that, had one not experienced it many times in the past, suggested the person responsible was in the throes of dismemberment by machete. Nevertheless, the circumstances demanded a thoughtful, if not frantic, response, and I bounded up the stairs to the rescue.
With the full understanding I risk being suffocated in my sleep, I reveal what my first thought had been when the scream nearly pierced an eardrum.
Christine stood on the dining room table, a mortified look on her face. “You gotta get rid of it,” she hollered.
“OK,” I said. And knowing the answer, I asked, “What is it?”
“A huge mouse.”
I looked at Gunner and Jack, the two chocolate Labradors we had at the time, for confirmation. They looked at me from their comfortable positions on the couch, and if they had shoulders to shrug, they would have.
“I really don’t want to kill it,” I said. (I couldn’t see it anyway and wondered after that scream if it would ever return.)
“It’s the size of a rat,” she said, “it probably has some disease, and it wants to bite me.”
“It can’t be that big, I doubt it has a disease, and they hardly ever attack people.”
“Even so,” she insisted.
I remember from early childhood my mother jumping on the kitchen table to escape a mouse. I had seen aunts and cousins do it too and had heard the screams. Why I can tell the difference between a mouse-in-the-house scream and the kind inspired by an ax murderer at the door, I cannot say. I just know it is so.
Fast forward a couple of years. Christine and I were out on the Kenai River flats during a 24-foot-high tide. The water was a couple of inches below the top of Christine’s chest waders, and we inched along knowing a step into a hole would be bad business.
As we crept along, a mouse swam close by, the tidal current carrying the little fellow along. He attempted to climb a blade of grass, but it didn’t hold and he fell back into the water.
“We need to help him,” Christine said.
Not sure what we could do, I started pulling up grass and fashioned a mouse-sized raft. I slipped the raft in front of the struggling little creature, who climbed on it and floated off to another day, as far as we know.
When we moved to our current home, which is rural, I thought about the pests we would have and realized it might be necessary to eradicate a normally prolific squirrel population. I had visions of wiring and insulation chewed to bits, attics scattered with the torn remnants of squirrel devastation, and of course, squirrel poop.
It didn’t happen. The nearest stand of spruce trees, where squirrels make their home, was across the road, a couple of hundred yards away. Our property is covered in birch trees, and not inviting to the little nuisances.
In the brush around our deck there was a perfect opening with lots of escape cover around so we could spread bird seed for songbirds to congregate. It was close enough to make the viewing nice, without interfering too much.
It took a few years but the squirrels eventually caught on to the free food, especially when we put out peanuts in the shell. They spend hours snatching them up, running off to store them and then forgetting where they stored them.
While we enjoyed the antics of the adorable little buggers and watched as new families emerged, we had concerns. We wanted to watch them as long as they didn’t decide to take up residence in the house. We didn’t want to have to turn on them if they got out of hand.
Musing about our rodents and our relationship with them got me thinking about how the circumstances in which we encounter animals in the natural world defines our responses.
A poor farmer in a village in India, struggling to make a living in the hacked-out jungle, where some 500 of his fellows have been killed and eaten by a pair of leopards might not assign the same value to the leopard as a tourist snapping photos of the beautiful cats while touring the Serengeti from the safety of a Land Rover.
The antics of well-fed bears on a salmon stream viewed from a platform may subjugate one’s perspective of bears in general. Caught up in the moment, I’ve found myself within arm’s reach of brown bears on salmon streams, and only recognized how ridiculous my behavior had been when viewing the photos.
My perspective regarding the creatures we share the planet with has changed with experience. My first impulse is no longer to destroy those that might be a nuisance. It turns out there may be other ways to solve some problems. A recent experience exposed this side of myself.
Our eight dogs and I spend a lot of time out in our shop. They eat their meals there and we all hang out there, sort of like a canine frat house. The occasional mouse or shrew will come through, and the real hunters in the family — Winchester, Hugo and Cheyenne — will hunt them relentlessly. It’s like having a bunch of barn cats.
So, the mouse problem has never been a problem.
A couple of months ago, I went in search of some item I rarely used and opened a drawer I also rarely use. There was a mass of shredded paper towels at the back. I should have known right then.
Instead, I wrapped my hand around the mass, and as I pulled it out, it suddenly felt warm, and then it started moving.
It’s not that long ago when holding a writhing mass of pink, hairless mice, no more than three-quarters of an inch, would not have been a big deal. I would have just thrown them in the garbage and thought nothing of it.
I didn’t know what to do, and no solution seemed good, as I had already intruded enough that the mother would not return to them. Animals don’t take this sort of thing nearly as hard as we do. I was sure I couldn’t nurse them.
I have to credit the natural world with helping me understand things I might never understand otherwise. In this case, there are many variations on how to view this situation and while different, they may all be just as valid, depending on a person’s experience.
But the value of their lives has a different meaning when there is no valid reason to end it. It took some years and some experience, but that is never lost on me.
Steve Meyer is a longtime Alaskan and avid shooter who lives in Kenai.