At war with a bunch of mice: Confessions of an ex-pacifist

  • Andy Selters

  • Cute and deadly: Deer mouse

    copyright 1997 Wendy Shattil and Bob Rozinski

Six years ago I bought a cabin in the mountains of eastern California. Though my fortunes rise and fall, almost every night I've thanked the millions of stars that I could look to the high crests and hear birdsong in the Jeffrey pines.

A year ago my illusion of haven fell apart. One of my neighbors died, and, as we were wondering about the cause, state officials in plastic suits set traps in his cabin. Then we were told he died of hantavirus, a rare disease carried by deer mice. The way you probably get hantavirus is by breathing dust from mouse droppings. Jim had been 48 and healthy.

I looked out the window toward his cabin and my head spun. Not only was Jim gone forever, but the agent of his death was all around. The floor and cabinets of my house could hold sudden death; which cleaning of a corner might do me in?

We all filed to a meeting in town with a state health official.

"Symptoms of the virus start out as flu-like, including a fever, with aching in the joints and headaches," we heard. "Often there is a stomach flu as well. After a period of three to five days the disease then progresses to respiratory distress. Usually the cause of death is the lungs filling with fluid."

Hands reaching up with hopeful questions wilted back to wring in their laps. There is no cure, no vaccine, not even a test that can get results before you're either dead or recovered from something else.

"The best chance for recovery is with oxygen therapy in the early stages of respiratory distress." We all imagined a flu turning into a gurgling race to the hospital.

Over the years two other people in our region near Bishop have died of hantavirus, and one person has recovered. In the Four Corners area almost 30 people have died.

State health officials said, "Most important is to minimize your contact with deer mice. Spray any droppings and killed mice with a disinfectant. We recommend a 1-to-10 solution of bleach and water."

None of us knew a house that was free of mice.

Armed with a hand-pump sprayer and shielded with a respirator mask, I prowled and soaked my closets, the drawers, the corners behind everything. In nearly every hidden cranny waited the tiny black sausages of death. I sprayed the little pellets until they floated, I ruined the carpeting, I dunked the silverware and dozens of other items in a bucket of the noxious brew. After three days my house satisfyingly reeked of swimming pool. But I sank into the couch and felt my innards still churning. At best I'd merely bought some time.

In the legislature of a mind, you can always tell when fear is trying to shout down all the other representatives. From deep in myself I heard a yelling like I'd never heard before, a demand that I eliminate mice.

My pacifist training wanted to remind me that mice are essential to most everything else that lives here - as prey for owls, ringtails, foxes and more. They probably disperse plant seeds, aerate soil, and they have a right to live for themselves. But my peacenik aspect could only retreat and acknowledge that life here was untenable as long as it was dangerous to breathe.

The neighborhood talk flowed like medications from a pharmacy.

"I'm setting traps everywhere. All you can do is kill as many as you can."

"We've had mice forever; it can't be that bad of a problem."

"There's no way to keep them out. Get a cat, and keep it hungry."

Other advice came over the phone: "Move away."

This was the Navajos' solution during the 1918 flu epidemic. Navajo families wordlessly walked away from the hogans that held their dead and dying relatives. To this day, no one has returned to those homes.

Three moping days went by until I found some new nuggets behind the refrigerator. I grabbed the sprayer and flooded the area. I paced while waiting for the bleach to have its effect, cursing myself. Why wouldn't I just get to it and kill? Was I willing to let mice kick me out, or to die trying to hold myself in some peace-loving light? I went to the couch and blackened the world with a pillow over my face. I had a conceptual gap to fix.

Through the pillow I could hear the night bugs tapping on the window, trying to get to the light. I listened to frenetic humming wings, then jumps to some other place hoping again to find a way to the light. Then I pulled off the pillow to watch. I saw one bug capture and suck the life from another. I went to the kitchen table, where I found paper and pencil.

I drew two parallel lines, a pane of glass in profile. Then I drew a couple of bugs on one side of the glass. I had chosen to occupy space in this mountain neighborhood of living and dying, and it was time either to make my peace or to go.

I needed a barrier. I phoned a couple of construction-wise buddies, and they convinced me it could be done.

First I had to disinfect the workspace. I crawled into the bowels of the problem, under the house. Shining a flashlight around, I almost threw up at the sight of thousands of pellets mixed throughout the dirt, and dozens on every little ledge. Right away I found half a dozen nests of torn insulation and brush and rags, each half full of mouse dung. Dusty rays of light beamed from tiny mouse portals.

For two days I belly-crawled and sprayed, ramming the plunger and aiming the mist, making sure my face mask fit tight, wincing through episodes of chlorine burning my eyes. To the rhythm of my wheezing through the filters I told myself over and over that this was the only way. I began to know my house as the mice knew it. At both days' end I stripped off my clothes and ran up into the shower.

One of those days a state health officer called. "Out of the 15 mice we trapped at your neighbor's cabin, six tested positive for hantavirus." He added, "This is right in the middle of the range of populations tested. Some mouse populations show up to 70 percent incidence.

"Essentially you find hantavirus wherever there's deer mice, Anchorage, Santa Fe, Catalina. It's certainly in towns and cities, too. We believe this virus has been around for some time, and therefore it must be a difficult disease to contract. You people in outlying areas probably have more frequent contact."

It was only luck that I hadn't gotten the disease yet. This could be a front of more widespread concern. I was not ready to give up on the place; before I could deem it safe, I went back to spray it all again, 15 more gallons of bleach solution pumped over two more days of commando squirming. Now I could get to work.

I began with a chalk line snapped all around the skirts of the cabin. Along this I sawed away the siding and then dug a trench to fill with concrete up past the cut. I nailed up a sill for the concrete to pour up to, and forms to hold it in. I arranged a work trade with my burlier neighbors, and after a six-hour brigade with 70-pound buckets of gray mud we made the start of a good seal.

Then I got some fine-mesh wire cloth, some aluminum wool, and some caulking and patching material. I stapled and stuffed and filled and caulked and patched all the holes around pipes, large rocks, and tiny joints where the concrete couldn't seal. During this process I had to start thinking about what to do with the mice already inside.

It is always better not to kill; I truly believe this. The strongest people are those like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., people who have grown beyond any fear for their lives. Me, I suspended some peanut butter from a wire across the top of a bucket of water. This rig drowned eight mice, two chipmunks and three wood rats.

It's been four months since Jim died; his cabin lies quiet. It's been two months since my trap has caught a rodent, and longer since I've seen mouse droppings in the house. I think I've put a reasonable distance between me and the virus.But I wonder if ever again I'll make the mistake of thinking there's a line behind which I'm safe.

Andy Selters lives and writes in Bishop, California.

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