Mice

Этот рассказ есть и на русском: https://newoztales.wordpress.com/2016/10/02/mice-2/

This story started during one of those relaxing BBQ picnics, which we used to attend so frequently, and lasted for the whole five years. I can hardly believe it myself, but, indeed, we cared after our beloved mice for that long. I can still remember this mouse affair very well and often wonder why so many people hate mice or are terribly scared of them. When we adopted our first pet mouse family we lived in …, I think that it actually does not matter much, because this story could have easily happened anywhere in the world.

Our picnic was of a rather usual type: girls were gossiping about everything – ranging from a pair of new shoes to the latest achievements of their ingenious children (and nowadays almost every kid is ingenious as if normal kids are an endangered species), whereas guys were cooking steaks and sausages on a BBQ while discussing recent sports results, real estate prices and comparative advantages of different brands of beer.

At some stage when the sausages were not quite ready, but usual conversation topics were already exhausted, the guys’ conversation almost dried up. Pauses were getting longer and longer and probably just to say something to revive our chat one of my friends mentioned that his twin 12 year old daughters had kept pet mice for some time, one mouse family each. I should say that mice are a rather odd choice for pets and are strongly disliked if not feared by many, but somehow our conversation was revived indeed. People started questioning if mice smell much, how frequently they breed, what they usually do and if it is possible at all to own these “primitive and same looking” creatures if you consider yourself a sane person. I did not really notice when my eight year old Katya came and started listening to this mouse talk… But she was around long enough to get interested and since I already knew quite well that little girls often take older ones for their role models, I was not really surprised when finally I heard a familiar “Can we get them too? I want them sooooo much!”

My first insight into differences between these “same looking” animals was provided to me in a pet shop, where to our big surprise we discovered that female mice were two and a half times more expensive than males. Ashamed by this gender-based inequality I bravely asked a shop assistant to explain me the price difference. With a friendly smile (but without any hint of irony) she told me that the difference is rather obvious for most of their customers and is due to the fact that grown-up males stink and are “lazy and pretty much useless”, whereas females practically do not smell even in their mature age and, most importantly, produce baby mice. I admit that after this mini-lecture I felt sorry about my mental abilities. Indeed, the heart of the matter was so obvious, that only a seriously dumb person could have asked my question…

Putting gender discrimination aside, I should say that mice are actually rather cute animals, especially when they are babies themselves or have little ones of their own. The number of babies in a litter can vary greatly, but typically we were getting 8 to 12 bean-sized, hairless, pink eyelid-closed pups in one go. By the end of the first week soft hair starts to appear, soon after eyelids open up and curious creatures start exploring the world inside and outside their cages. One month is the preferred age of giving them away to a pet shop, mainly because older mice are considered less cute and harder to sell. By the age of two months mice are mature enough to mate and produce babies. Sadly they rarely make it up to 18 months, so that it is quite fair to say that mouse life cycle is approximately 50 times faster than ours (our one year corresponds to their single week). Just think that the whole documented history of human civilization (5000 years), being compressed in mice format, would almost fit in a timeframe of an average person life…

Typically we had two mouse families in different cages at the same time so that we regularly were getting mouse count boosts of up to 20 to 25 pups. One month later the little ones were taken to our local pet store and their parents had a new chance of starting everything all over again.

I would like to note that even pet mice have plenty of natural enemies. Our cages were often located in a covered outdoor area (as grown-up boys do smell quite a bit indeed!) and despite our best effects to barricade them with benches and outdoor chairs, local birds often found ways to attack them. Bird tactics were as follows: to break off one of the external cage parts and wait until a mouse tried to get out. Surely only few mice were stupid enough to fall into this trap, but some still did, providing a certain Darwinian population control. Our cat, being quite old and lazy, was a far lesser risk, however even she was reasonably interested in young adventurous mice which were running outside of cages at night – little ones were small enough to get through our cage bars and enjoyed regular fresh air strolls. Rarely some of the grown-ups retained an ability to squeeze themselves out of a cage and back inside. One especially smart mouse even gave birth to her litter somewhere under the house, but later was regularly walking them back into the cage for feeding. These mice were less tamed than usual, but we were still able to catch the wandering family without too much trouble when it was time for a drop off of one month olds at our local pet shop.

The two most interesting stories about mice turned out to be sad ones. This is hardly a coincidence: even for us, humans, epic dramas and tragic storylines of unhappy families provide far more variety and intrigue than romantic paradise descriptions and cheerful comedies…

So once upon a time when I was writing an urgent report for my restless bosses, I received a phone call from my wife, who informed me in a trembling voice that something truly terrible had happened. I reasonably assumed that this was about some kind of an accident with one of our kids and prepared myself for the worst. But I was not quite right…

– Mother-mouse has died, – said Victoria, – what should we do with baby mice???

– Maybe she is not quite dead, – I replied, – yesterday she looked very lively… Maybe she has simply fainted? What about bringing her to a vet?

After one hour interlude our conversation resumed.

– Thanks a lot for making me look like a complete idiot – continued Victoria – a young girl there has started to explain to me that it is truly impossible to revive a dead pet, as if I didn’t know this myself… But she also told me that our baby mice may be old enough to try feeding them using a dropper…

When I finally came home carrying all necessary equipment and supplies for mice feeding, I witnessed a rather intriguing scene: all family, including Victoria, Katya and five-year-old Max stood around our dining table and were dipping baby mice one by one in a saucer with milk. By a freak coincidence it was one of these rare windy weather blackouts so that candles and torches made this scene look similar to some voodoo ritual. It would actually have looked very funny if I did not see tears in the eyes of the kids.

– One baby has already died, – whispered Katya, – they are very hungry, but they just cannot drink milk this way yet…

There are moments when the right sort of words, words which instantly stop panic and return hope, are found with an incredible ease, although later you may pay a considerable price for them…

– There is no need to panic now, – I said, ­– mummy and I know exactly what to do. From now on no one will die.

Well, we learned very soon that knowing what to do was only the first baby step in our mouse-saving adventure and the process of keeping the promise (and pups) alive turned our lives in a complete nightmare…

The technical side of feeding was actually straightforward: one needs to take a thin wire (like the one from inside of a computer mouse cable), carefully take off a plastic coating and attach it by a sticky tape to a dropper tip. This reduces a tip opening by quite a bit and such an improvised device can be successfully used to deliver concentrated milk into the tiny mouths of baby mice. Sounds easy enough if you have a single mouse, but we had about ten and understandably feeding everyone was taking quite a while – about twenty to twenty five minutes to be exact. And after feeding we had to wash them in a cup (to stop a milk crust from covering all over their bodies) and then dry them with tissues and put next to a hot water bottle for a sleep and … soon start this process from the beginning again because pups have to be fed every two hours and … this actually includes night time as well! Truly it was worse than having a new born human baby!

On a positive side our kids enjoyed and actively participated in the mouse saving process, at least during the daytime. And the feeding itself was actually never boring – just think about mice bathing: naked mice paddling to the edge of a warm water cup… it was just hilarious. Plus, if you remember, mice grow up reasonably quickly (their week equals to our year) and a nighttime dropper feeding hell lasted for about a week only – after that they were able to eat by themselves: soaked-in-milk-bread first and a proper mouse food soon after. At the end almost everyone, including us, has survived…

They say that parents are usually superheroes for their kids, so why raise eyebrows?  We’ve just confirmed our status.

The second of the dramas with mice chronologically occurred before the first one, at a time when we did not know any baby mouse dropper-feeding techniques and were relying exclusively on mother-nature. One mouse became quite sick. Moreover she also had pups…

You have probably noticed that mice get sick and die far more often than humans and this probably is the main trouble in keeping them as pets. But you should remember that they live 50 times faster than us and have a hundred times more babies during their lifespan and if they did not die reasonably often they would cover the whole world very quickly and you would not be able to go anywhere without stepping on them… But still if mice are your pets it is very sad to see them unwell, especially if they have babies. By the way, even vets usually give mice a miss with medical treatment. Don’t expect tablet prescriptions or broken foot plastering – “she’ll be right on her three legs, mate”.

But let me return to our story: a mouse with babies was very unwell. No, she did not die, but was clearly quite sick: stopped exercising in a running wheel, in fact, did not move much at all outside of the wheel too, ate poorly and probably lost most of her milk, because previously fast growing pups were no longer developing normally. I would say that they were even shrinking a bit. And then the most mysterious part started –pups started disappearing one by one. Disappearance of a single mouse was a reasonably routine event (birds or a cat or a rare case of running away to start a brave new wild life), but a few in a row? And why would such small and weak mice want to run away? Very strange indeed… I had to start my highly unofficial investigation and finally discovered a couple of tiny skeletons hidden deep into cage litter. Probably mother-mouse had felt that she just could not physically feed all of them anymore and decided to keep only a few stronger pups. Indeed, when the initial number of babies was halved, little mice stopped disappearing and their growth resumed.

In two weeks it was time for our next mouse drop off trip (although we decided on keeping the cutest of our survivors) and on the way to the pet store I finally made my mind up to tell Katya the truth about mice disappearances.

– You know, Katya, they did not really run away. I’ve actually found a couple of skeletons in the cage, – I started…

– I know, dad, – she replied in a sad voice, – when I was cleaning the cage I found a couple of skeletons too… But I thought that you and mum will be too upset learning about it so I just threw them away and didn’t tell you anything…

Somehow at this very moment I thought that our crazy mouse adventures may be worth far more for us than I ever expected.

2013.

Other stories are available here: https://newoztales.wordpress.com/  (3 menus at the end of the page).

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