Life With Rodents Tales of living with the wild and the tame.

 

 

1.

 

I knew something was wrong as soon as I walked into my apartment. Straight ahead of me was the short hallway, from which nothing else in the place was visible, but the flap …  flap from the other side of the wall at the far end told me what was happening. I turned on the hall light and steeled myself. When I laid out the rectangular, bright yellow glue traps with their white plastic borders, I knew I would have to deal with the results, but of course the guaranteed outcome of any situation is the one you cannot foresee; I had been surprised days earlier when I found gray fur on one of the traps, from a now partially bald mouse who had a story to tell his many buddies, but here was something worse: not an uncaught rodent, but a half-caught rodent.

I was in something of a trap myself. It was 1987. In the summer of the previous year, I had moved to New York City, having landed an entry-level job with a book publishing company in Midtown Manhattan. Through ads in the Village Voice in those pre-Internet days, I had found roommates in a trendy neighborhood in Brooklyn, Park Slope, but after six months of that succession of lunatics, I felt—introvert that I was—ready to go it alone. The question was how to afford my own place on my miserable salary. My solution was to move into a one-bedroom apartment so far out in Brooklyn that most native New Yorkers I talked to had heard of neither the neighborhood (Cypress Hills, near the border of Queens) nor the subway train I took to get out there (the J). I had wanted to be alone; well, I got my wish. As a college-educated 24-year-old black man in this lower-middle-class Hispanic neighborhood, I both fit in and did not, having friendly interactions with neighbors and my landlord—whose sister ran the laundromat downstairs, where I dropped off my clothes—but getting to know no one. My place was so far from anything at all that I had very infrequent visits from friends, every one of whom asked at some point, having spent a shockingly long time in transit to see me, “How did you find this place?” A great divide existed between my work life, my social life, and my love life—such as that was—on the one hand, and where I lived, on the other; I felt I was commuting between universes.

I saw them scamper, two and three at a time, across the kitchen floor (I started to write my kitchen floor, but that would be inaccurate); I saw them disappear down into my stove, tails waving like blades of grass in the wind as they crawled beneath the burners; I saw one flatten its body, in a way I would not have believed had I just heard about it, to fit between the kitchen counter and the wall.

And yet I was not quite alone out there. On my very first morning in the place, I rose in my very own bedroom and gave a satisfied glance at the living room—all mine!—on my way to the kitchen, where I saw a quick movement that I told myself, and almost managed to believe, was my imagination. But my imagination could not have produced what I saw in the days and weeks that followed. I was, almost literally, overrun. I saw them scamper, two and three at a time, across the kitchen floor (I started to write my kitchen floor, but that would be inaccurate); I saw them disappear down into my stove, tails waving like blades of grass in the wind as they crawled beneath the burners; I saw one flatten its body, in a way I would not have believed had I just heard about it, to fit between the kitchen counter and the wall; and I once woke in the night to the sound of rattling, which turned out to be one of them investigating the container of cookies I had left on my bedside table, maybe a foot from my face.

This was war.

And so here I was, both general and foot soldier in this war, back from Friday night socializing in the city, standing in the middle of my hallway, working up the nerve to finish what I had started. I gave myself a final mental push and went to the end of the hall, turned left into the living room, then right to the kitchen. Sure enough. Left legs on the trap, right legs free, it alternately rose and crashed, as if having grown a too-heavy extension of itself. I went to my bedroom for a long piece of wood, left over from the three bucks’ worth of lumber I had bought to build myself a rickety bookcase. A couple of raps on the head—each one producing a squeal—and it was done. I opened a brown paper grocery bag and froze my nerves long enough to pick up the trap by one edge and drop it, along with the little flopping gray body, inside. I rolled the top so I could not see the bag’s contents. And I wonder now, from a distance of three decades, what went through the head of that young man with my name as he stood there, so alone, with his freshly killed mouse. Did he long for someone to tell about it? Did he envision a time when he would not face such things alone? Did he look to a day when he would cohabitate not with mice or lunatics but with people he cared about, who cared about him? Did he have faith that he would find them?

 

 

2.

 

Nineteen years later. I was 43 years old. It was the spring of 2006, and I was again living in an apartment in Park Slope—my home of 15 years—which I shared with my wife and our two daughters.

On this particular evening my wife was out. I was in a room by myself, watching a DVD rental, Antonioni’s The Passenger. In the next room, my older girl was cavorting with her fellow 12-year-olds, guests for a sleepover. My younger daughter, 7, was probably cowering elsewhere in the apartment.

I was not to finish watching The Passenger that evening. At one point the girls’ shouts and shrieks—which I had managed to tune out as background noise—took on a new tone, and I went to the living room to see what was happening. The four girls, looks of astonishment on their faces, were gathered around the cage containing my daughters’ two hamsters. Both rodents, Apollo and Scurry, were female—or so we thought, until that evening. I looked in the cage. Apollo was on her back, surrounded by several pink blobs: her babies.

In the next few minutes, amid a lot of pre-pubescent loudness, two unfortunate things occurred. I got some bad advice; and I took it.

“We have to take the babies out!” one of the girls insisted. “The mother will eat them otherwise!” Well, I certainly did not want us all to see that, and this girl seemed to know more about hamsters than I did. As is obvious in retrospect, mother hamsters cannot always—or even usually—eat their young, or else there would be no hamsters at all; but in the heat of the moment I did not think things through that far. Not one to touch rodents myself, I directed the girls to remove the apparently male Scurry from the scene (he was deposited in a carrying case) and to place the babies on top of some paper towels on a metal tray from the kitchen.

“We have to take the babies out!” one of the girls insisted. “The mother will eat them otherwise!” Well, I certainly did not want us all to see that, and this girl seemed to know more about hamsters than I did.

Now there was a new problem: having “saved” the five or so little pink babies from their mother, how would we keep them alive?

I called friends in the neighborhood, a fellow family of hamster owners, for guidance. That was how I came by the phone number of a woman whose real name I have forgotten—if I ever learned it—but whose nickname has stayed with me: the Rodent Lady. “Your big mistake was taking them out of the cage,” the Rodent Lady told me. “You can’t put them back in, because the mother will sense they’ve been tainted by humans and kill them. So you’ll have to keep them alive on your own. You’ve got your work cut out for you.” She was not wrong about that. On her instructions, I went to the grocery store to buy ready-made yellow baby (human) formula, which I was to dispense to the tiny newborn hamsters with an eye dropper every hour, all night, as they lay on their backs under the heat of a lamp, looking like pink tokens from a children’s board game. I may have, sometime during the course of my life, slept worse than I did that night; then again, I may not have. Once an hour, more bleary-eyed each time, I went to the kitchen to give out the drops, and while I thought I saw their mouths moving to take in the formula, it may have been wishful thinking, or a dream. In the morning, I set out with the tray of baby hamsters to the veterinarian ten blocks from my home. I had walked about three-quarters of the way when I noticed something. The babies were all dead.

At about that time I came to a trash can, and I tossed them in.

Two or three months later—a summer evening.

My family and I returned by commuter train from Amagansett, New York, where we had spent the night with friends who had a summer house. We walked into the apartment, ready to settle back in our routine. Something was not quite right, though. Apollo (our older daughter’s pet) and Scurry (our younger daughter’s) now lived in separate cages; we had borrowed Scurry’s cage from still more friends in the neighborhood, who had, as I recall, gotten it second-hand themselves. Its mileage had begun to show, and sometimes tape was needed to keep the cage closed. And sometimes, as we were about to discover the hard way, even tape did not do the trick.

“I don’t want to be an alarmist,” I said, looking in the cage, “but I don’t see Scurry.”

A long search ensued. It was still in progress when our daughters’ bedtime rolled around. They were asleep when my wife spotted Scurry in the act of, well, scurrying along the baseboard in the hallway and scooped him up. She woke our younger daughter, who saw Scurry and went back to sleep with a smile on her face.

That was not the end of the trouble, though. Over the next few days, Scurry started looking funny, most noticeably developing a red growth on his head. I realized with horror, and whispered to my wife, that Scurry could well have gotten into the mouse poison we had put around the apartment. My wife took him to the vet (the same vet I had not quite made it to with the baby hamsters); the vet gave Scurry a shot—“which he didn’t like a bit,” my wife reported—and said he should be fine.

At about that time my wife passed the doorway, and I motioned to her to come in and told her the news. She took a moment, grabbed my arm, lowered her head, and shivered. Then we hatched our plan.

Then came the night before our younger daughter’s eighth birthday. She and her sister were in the living room watching TV; I passed by the room where Scurry’s cage was and thought I would look in on him. He was not moving. I grabbed a ruler and gently poked him. The ruler met not with the pliancy of flesh but with the stiffness of a piece of driftwood. At about that time my wife passed the doorway, and I motioned to her to come in and told her the news. She took a moment, grabbed my arm, lowered her head, and shivered. Then we hatched our plan. It was simply out of the question to tell our daughter, hours before her birthday, that her pet was dead. So, after the girls went to bed, I would take Scurry, cage and all, to the basement to be put out with the garbage. The next day, we would explain to the girls that after they went to bed, Scurry had started behaving oddly, so we had taken him to the vet, where they would keep him for a day or so; our younger daughter could enjoy her birthday, confident that her pet would return soon. When her birthday was over, we would tell her what had happened—the relevant part, at least.

The plan went as well as it could have, given the way it had to conclude. As I headed to the basement with the cage, though, I wondered if I would ever have an encounter with a rodent that did not involve killing it, accidentally or otherwise.

 

 

3.

 

I have had many adventures with my wife and daughters. Most of them have not involved rodents. Most of them, while of no particular interest to an outside party, are treasure to my aging heart. Like every family man, I have known exasperation. Mainly what I have known, though, is joy. And I have never, once, felt alone.

As children do, though, mine have grown up and left. My younger daughter, on going to college, left two gerbils behind, both definitely female: April, with her gray and white fur, and Charlie, whose coat is black. When we brought them home, back in the spring of 2014, April seemed the shyer one, hiding a lot in the big replica of a peanut shell in their tank, while Charlie seemed generally more comfortable. As time went on, though, the two appeared to switch personalities: April came out of her shell, so to speak, and was very relaxed when my daughter picked her up and let her run along her arms and shoulders, while Charlie was more skittish. Even April and Charlie’s relationship to each other appeared to change; April became more assertive, giving at least as good as she got when it came to the way they sniffed and licked each other. What never changed, though, was how close they were. They made up each other’s world.

I have had many adventures with my wife and daughters. Most of them have not involved rodents. Most of them, while of no particular interest to an outside party, are treasure to my aging heart.

Then, in the spring of 2017, April died. (Her death was the result of natural causes; she was 3 years old, a Methuselah in the world of gerbils.) With my daughter off at college, I put on rubber gloves and removed April from the tank. In her absence, Charlie did what I had never seen her do: she lay on her side, panting. Watching her, I was sure she would die soon, too. To my surprise, she recovered, and at this writing she is still with us. But as she lay there, her tiny body visibly giving way to grief at the departure of one so close, I thought I knew just a little of what she felt.

  • Rosalind Early

    You made rodents interesting instead of icky! Cool article!