Monday Motivation: Of mice and moral conundrums
We’ve just spent three days with friends in a remote village in the Klein Karoo. We were alerted to the plague of fieldmice they’re experiencing when a solitary mouse emerged surreptitiously from their kitchen and made a dash for cover beneath a large rosemary bush in the courtyard outside.
“Looks more like a rat to me,” I observed. The creature was as big as the rats our cats used to drag into the house for our approval.
“No,” said Rian. “They’re field mice. D’you notice the stripes on their backs.” And then, as he idly started breaking up a stale slice of bread into bite-sized chunks, he added: “We’ve caught eleven of them in the past week.”
I nodded at the extravagant rosemary bush from which emerged a rustle marking the passage through it of what must have been a procession of mice. “And clearly you haven’t killed them all.”
He gave me an odd look. “We don’t kill them.”
Lindy poked her head out of the kitchen door. “I brought a couple of humane traps from the UK on my last trip. So we trap them, and then release them later in the bush.”
Their house is only a few hundred metres from the limitless semi-desert of the region, covered at this time of year in aloes, a smattering of vibrant purple, yellow and white spring flowers and the ubiquitous spekboom.
Rian retrieved a trap from the foot of one of the posts supporting the pergola. Thirty centimetres or so long, it resembled a miniature polytunnel, with a spring-loaded door at one end. He dropped the bread fragments he’d prepared into it, set the door, and inserted the trap into the rosemary bush.
“Bit like fly fishing,” I said.
“Coffee?” said Lindy. “And one of our home-made rusks?”
We ‘d hardly finished the rusks when we heard the snap of the trap.
“Got him,” said Rian.
In fact, the trap had closed on two mice. One looked very like the mouse that had scurried from the kitchen earlier: a patriarch of a rodent, clear stripes running along his back, sitting nonchalantly on his haunches and chewing a piece of bread. The other was much smaller, clearly a mouse teenager, less at ease in captivity than his bigger companion, not nibbling on the crumb clutched in his two tiny front paws.
We all clambered into Lindy’s truck, mice secure in their trap on the back seat alongside Trish, and reversed out of the drive.
“I think we’ll let them out in the garlic field,” Lindy said. “It’s far enough away for them not to be able to find their way back.” We learned that research has revealed that if fieldmice are deposited more than 70 metres from their home range, they are unlikely to return.
The mice were released. The larger of the pair continued to munch on his piece of bread, apparently unperturbed by his experience. The other ran into the field, much more eager to escape the terrors of captivity than he was to enjoy the small pile of bread crumbs that had tumbled out with the two of them.
Lindy was pleased with the success of the mission. There’ll be more where they came from, I warned her. “Yes,” she said. “But we don’t mind. As long as we keep on top of the numbers, and don’t kill them, we’re happy.”
That evening she got a WhatsApp from one of her neighbours. “We’re looking after an injured owl,” it ran. “We need live mice to feed it. Can you help?”
This threw the household into moral turmoil.
“It seems so calculated,” Lindy said. I pointed out that in the bush owls caught and consumed fieldmice all the time. It was the natural order of things.
Rian was unhappy with my argument. Deliberately offering mice to an owl was, he suggested, very different from giving them the chance to escape the claws and the talons of a predator.
The argument raged back and forth for some time. Eventually, however, Rian and Lindy settled on what they felt was an acceptable compromise: they would offer their humane trap to their neighbour and invite her to trap her own mice to feed to the owl. This wasn’t entirely satisfactory because it was the moral equivalent of kicking the can down the road, and leaving the difficult moral choice up to someone else. But it would have to do.
And it would, I pointed out, help the owl survive, which was also morally, or at least environmentally, desirable.
Now what does this have to do with writing? It seems to me that this little story is unremarkable up to the point when that WhatsApp messaged pinged on Lindy’s phone. Before that point, the story was a more or less charming essay about pest control by two kind but squeamish people intent on doing as little as harm as they could.
The arrival of the WhatsApp request introduced real moral conflict. And for me, that’s really when the story – and all story – begins.