Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Rats, Mice, & Snakes: A Better Mousetrap

Occasionally, Jake's trap caught things other than mice.
          The mouse population varies greatly from year to year in the desert northwest. One year their population exploded so much it prompted a warning from local health officials for miners and others who worked and lived outside.  That year, when I stood outside quietly in the sagebrush about half an hour after sunset, the ground would shimmer with activity. I could not actually see anything in the growing darkness but sensed that something moved over there, and then something moved over here, and then again something moved somewhere else. It was just creepy. In the morning, after the mice went to bed, the evidence of their presence in the cabin was everywhere. There were lots of mice.
Above is Jake's better mousetrap.
            I didn’t – and still don't – usually include a bunch of mouse traps with my mining supplies, and store-bought traps are not be very effective anyway. Jake taught me how to build a better mouse trap out of materials often found in any mining camp. All you need is a 5 gallon bucket, a paper bag, some string or rope, and a little peanut butter. Put about 3 inches of water in the bucket.  Stretch the paper over the top of the bucket and tie it on with string, rope, or wire. The trap should have a smooth surface like a drum but does not have to be as tight. With a sharp knife make two straight right angle cuts in the paper all the way across the covered surface of the bucket. These cuts should cross in the middle of the bucket (see drawing). Where you put the trap does not matter – the mice will find it. However, a string must be hung directly over the center of the bucket. The string should end about three inches above the surface of the paper and be liberally coated with peanut butter. You must also provide a ramp for the mice to get to the edge of the bucket. Any old piece of wood, cardboard, or pile of rocks will work. A mouse will smell the peanut butter, climb up on the edge of the bucket, step onto the paper stretched over the bucket with water in it, fall in, and drown.
             Now you must understand what peanut butter is to a mouse. It is the ultimate food – a 5 star restaurant, the meal of a lifetime, a meal that will never be forgotten, something that cannot be passed by. Its smell is intoxicating, alluring, like violets in springtime or Christmas cookies backing in the kitchen. The scent must be followed until its source is found.     
Gene's hat rests on a hook in the cabin.
            A mouse traveling through the sage brush and getting a faint whiff of peanut butter will change direction and head for it. As the smell gets stronger, it will find the bucket and the ramp up to the rim. On the rim the mouse encounters a small dilemma. While the excitement of the peanut butter straight ahead is almost overwhelming, a small wave of a sense of danger enters the mouse’s atmosphere. As it moves onto the paper, its weight causes the paper to dip toward the water below. This is alarming for the mouse because he knows the peanut butter is up on the string and that he will have to reach up to get it. Most mice move back to the rim, stand on their hind legs, and sniff the peanut butter on the string -- so close yet so far away. They then move out onto the paper a little further, stand cautiously on their hind legs again, and sniff. When they bring their front feet down to the paper, the paper bends, and they fall into the bucket. The overwhelming desire for the peanut butter versus the perception of danger is fascinating to watch and provides numerous entertaining examples which parallel our own desires and their consequences. One morning that year I found 28 drowned mice in the bucket.