17 MARCH 2007, Page 33

Technological warfare against mice won’t work. Try cats

Ralph Waldo Emerson is quoted as saying: ‘If a man write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbour, tho’ he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.’ I don’t know about the first two commodities. There are too many authors churning out words, and who cares for a sermon these days, let alone the preacher? But mousetraps that work, that actually catch mice! Now you’re talking, Waldo! I hear nothing, these days, but complaints about mice. What’s the word? Infestation? Epiphytic? Zymosis? Pandemia? There has been nothing like it since 10thand 11th-century Germany, the time of the Pied Piper, when mice were directed to ‘get’ objectionable people, like the Rhine-pirate Freiherr von Göttingen, Archbishop Hatto, the robber-baron Count Graaf, Bishop Adolf of Cologne and Bishop Widerolf of Strasbourg — all without exception eaten by armies of mice down to their whited bones. Rhineland mice had a contemptuous saying, ‘As common as prelate-meat.’ Mice can begin to mate at seven weeks, and reproduce throughout the year, with an average of 5.5 litters and 31 young per female per year in buildings and 57 in farms. Some mice are very small — adults only three inches long including tail and weighing less than half an ounce. Hence Shakespeare often uses ‘mouse’ as a synonym for tiny, as in the Dover Cliffs speech in Lear, ‘The fishermen that walked upon the beach / Appear like mice.’ But their numbers make them formidable. Mice population explosions in the Central Valley of California in 1926 and 1941 produced up to 80,000 an acre. The fact that the first was caused by unusual heat and the second by unusual cold cast doubt on claims by the Greens that the present outbreak is (of course) the result of global warming. France between 1790 and 1935 had 20 mouse plagues.

Rodents like the same food as humans and each can easily consume its body weight in a week. They played a major role in destroying the Soviet Union by consuming over 40 per cent of all food produced by a system which took months to get food from the producing to consuming areas — the greatest, perhaps the only, beneficiary of Marxism was the rat. I suspect that research would show a marked correlation in a modern society between the number of bureaucrats and rodents. In a decade of New Labour, a million desk-officials have been added, and the current mouse afflatus is one of the consequences.

People, especially women, often scream at the sight of a mouse and can’t abide going into a room where they think a mouse may be. But, until the 19th century, ‘mouse’ was a term of affection used by men for wives and girlfriends. Edward III called Queen Philippa his mouse. Henry VIII thus addressed both Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, before he put them in the Tower mousetrap. Hamlet’s father-in-law called Queen Gertrude his mouse, as the Prince remarks just before he stabs old Polonius to death through the arras. Indeed, in the decade in which the play was written, the term was common among lovers, thus the lines from Albion’s England: ‘God bless the Mouse, the Bridegroom sayd / And smakt her on the lips.’ Mice were out of amorous fashion in the rational 18th century, but came back thanks to Beatrix Potter. Her patronage of mice had its effect on Walt Disney, who studied her work, and then picked Mickey Mouse as his super-hero. One of his motives, however, was that a cartoon mouse was reducible to a series of circles, which made it easy to draw rapidly at a time when all images in a movie cartoon were hand-drawn. Disney employed more than 2,000 artists in his studio (more than all the studios in Florence throughout the Renaissance, 1450–1525). His first feature-length movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1936–37), required over three million drawings to make. So the Mickey circlemouse was an efficiency symbol. He was also more popular than any other film star in history, receiving over 600,000 fan letters in 1935, the largest number ever recorded in Hollywood, or anywhere else. Now people may look down their noses at Mickey Mouse, a name which indeed has acquired all kinds of opprobrious verbal overtones, but if you take the trouble to look again at the first Disney talkie, Steamboat Willie, made in 1928, the year I was born, you will see that this form of tuneful animation was one of the few and rare genuine revolutions in the long history of art, a new kind of art indeed. Mickey Mouse made his specific appearance then and was at the heart of this new form of human aesthetic ingenuity. Three quarters of a century later, it has proliferated into countless forms of animation and graphic anthropomorphisms all over the world, to the harmless delight of our much-battered humanity. It was one of the few good novelties of the cruellest and most destructive century — and it all came from a mouse.

That such a small and pitiful creature should help to cheer us up will have been no surprise to the poets, who have made much creative use of the mouse in all ages. Horace and Virgil liked mice. Shakespeare picked on them to make points more than he did on any other animal. Shelley was keen, too, and Chaucer has one crop up constantly, especially in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue of the Canterbury Tales, where he reflects the mediaeval notion that mice like liquor (‘Thou comest hoom as drunken as a mous’) and are faithless (‘I holde a Mouses herte nat worth a leek’). Only Burns devoted an entire poem to a mouse, but it is one of the best ever written and contains an observation of bitter truth, ‘The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men / Gang aft agley.’ The word ‘mouse’ can mean many things, especially in English, German and Chinese — a black eye, a beggar, a precision instrument, a birthmark, a form of poison, a lock, a computer control, and several kinds of nautical knots and rigging; and the term is used in geology, botany, surgery, fishing, engineering, optics, butchery, hawking and medicine. All the same, mice, whether scamperers, burrowers, ricochetals or all three, are always on the brink of getting out of control. They can live anywhere and adapt themselves perfectly to life in the minute crevices of human societies. They are our doppelgängers. Rodents form half of all mammals and keep pace with the population explosion — ten billion of them. Mice are difficult to keep under. Their only effective enemy is the cat, as Chaucer noted 600 years ago in the Manciple’s Tale, because cats hate mice and love to eat them:

Lat take a cat, and fostre hym wel with milk And tendre flesh, and make his couche of silk, And lat hym seen a mous go by the wal, Anon he weyveth milk and flesh and al, And every deyntee that is in that hous, Swich appetite he hath to ete a mous.

A fierce cat has taken to haunting the purlieus of my house in Notting Hill. He is reddish brown with a touch of heliotrope and his eyes flash lethal fire. He originally came to kill birds, especially the family of robins which are my joy, but he has now obviously constituted himself mouser to the Johnson establishment. And very successful he is. We are now mouse-free.