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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

10) House Mouse

Mus musculus

I think there’s a mouse in my kitchen.  I haven’t seen it yet, but every once in a while when I get up in the morning I find small dark pellets that look suspiciously like mouse droppings littered about the oven.

I have a pet cat (Felis catus), but so far she’s shown little inclination to hunt for mice.  I can’t blame her: there’s no insulation in my house, and now in mid-winter the kitchen in particular can get bitterly cold late at night.  In fact in the peculiar manner of so many old houses in Melbourne, it’s frequently colder inside than it is outside, and given that it’s so cold, and that I have a cat, and that I never leave any food lying around in my kitchen, I’m surprised that the mouse wants to be in the house at all.

Short of those creatures that actually parasitise our bodies, there are few animal encounters which feel quite so invasive as the arrival of a mouse inside our home.  Just the sight of mouse droppings anywhere near our food is enough to evoke in us not just the expected disgust such a discovery would normally engender, but an additional level of visceral horror brought on by a long cultural memory of mice as disease vectors.  Mice exist as a duality in our minds: on the one hand they’re the first experience many of us have with the joys of pet ownership; on the other hand, mice and, even more so, rats (Rattus spp.) are a cultural shorthand for any number of unfavourable associations.  Even in Australia, where “bastard” can be a term of endearment and friends will happily insult each-other, to call somebody a rodent is to grievously insult and disparage them.  Images of mice and rats are an easy way of suggesting poverty and extreme lack of sanitation and hygiene.  In the recent Australian television documentary Go Back to Where You Came From, the squalor of refugee dwellings in Malaysia was immediately and efficiently evoked by footage of teeming rodents.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if I have a mouse in my kitchen.  It’s far from being an uncommon situation: the species is, after all, called the House Mouse.  Furthermore, due to unexpectedly high levels of rain and the consequent explosion of plant life, much of Australia is currently enduring a major mouse plague.  Australia is a country in which everything happens on a vast scale, and some mouse plagues here have been recorded as numbering millions of individuals.  Huge areas of Australia are given over to wheat farming, and globally Australia is a significant exporter of wheat, so mouse plagues can be disastrous.

Australia has several native species of mice, but the House Mouse is not one of them.  Like so many problem species in this country the House Mouse was introduced as a consequence of human settlement.  The first animal to be introduced to Australia by humans was the Dingo (Canis lupus dingo), which was brought over from southeast Asia thousands of years ago and which is so closely related to the domestic dog that for much of the twentieth century it was regarded as a member of the same species, Canis familiaris.  More recently, such locally infamous animals as the European Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes), the European Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), and the Cane Toad (Bufo marinus), among many others, have been introduced for various reasons and have wrought significant damage on the Australian environment and on populations of native animals.  Many of these species were introduced deliberately, and as a consequence of the damage they’ve done Australians are now almost irrationally hostile towards introduced animals.

Yet Australia is also heavily dependent upon introduced animals.  Throughout the twentieth century it was said that Australia “rode on the sheep’s back”, so important was the wool industry to the nation’s economy.  The north of Australia is famed for the vastness of its cattle stations.  Sheep (Ovis aries) and cows (Bos spp.), though, can be just as disastrous for the Australian environment as the less favoured animals: until Europeans introduced them, the hoofed animals (Ungulates) were completely unknown in Australia, and Australian plants and topsoil do not cope well with the pressure applied to them by hard hooves.  Another hoofed animal, the horse (Equus caballus), has become so accepted in Australian folklore that the feral horses – the brumbies – found throughout the country but most famously in the mountains of south-eastern New South Wales and Victoria are almost considered native animals, yet their impact on the environment is no less marked for that.

Australia is, more than anything else, an island.  A vast island, to be sure, an island continent – but still, an island, and most Australians have an islander’s attitude to their country’s borders and anything or anyone that might attempt to cross them.  Since the British arrived in the late eighteenth century and started creating what would eventually become the country we know now, Australia has never been invaded – and yet fear of infiltration runs deep here.  Which is not to say that the history of this country hasn’t been one of arrival: Australia is a nation of immigrants, and since the separate colonies of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, and Western Australia federated to become the nation of Australia in 1901 the population has increased almost six-fold.

Yet there’s always been unease in Australia about immigration.  Although Afghans and Chinese are two of the oldest ethnic groups in the country, both dating back to the nineteenth century, three-quarters of the twentieth century was marred by the infamous “White Australia Policy”.  In the last decade, debate about immigration has been almost wholly devoted to the question of what to do with “boat people” – so-called “illegal immigrants” who make their way to south-east Asia and from there depart in dangerously fragile boats, headed for Australia’s northern coast.  Australians, being relatively comfortable citizens of an affluent country which has weathered the global financial crisis without too much difficulty and which has never seen warfare on its own shores, have difficulty imagining themselves into the lives of refugees and asylum seekers, and thus are all too willing to condemn – or to allow themselves to be led to condemn – people for whom applying for asylum through the approved channels simply isn’t a possibility.

Australians are as touchy about being accused of racism as anybody else, and to be fair when we meet people whose ethnicity differs from our own I think few of us are actually hostile, we’re usually willing to give somebody a chance – but you can’t meet every asylum seeker, every refugee, every new immigrant, face-to-face, and it’s a lot easier to dismiss people en masse than it is to speak unkindly of individuals.  Some of the concern about new arrivals is justified: Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth, and there are only so many people it can sustain.  However, people keep arriving in Australia, and the inescapable fact is that some groups are more welcome here than others.  Despite the great ethnic diversity of modern Australia, the dominant culture here is still Anglo-Celtic and shows no signs of becoming anything else any time soon.  Australia is an English-speaking country, and the English-speaking world has been a peaceful one for some time now.  The countries which have been at war since 1992, when Australia introduced mandatory detention for people arriving in the country without a valid visa, have been countries whose cultures differ greatly from the Australian mainstream.  Few Australians would be willing to say outright that they don’t like Afghans, or Iraqis, or Africans, or Muslims – but it’s much more socially acceptable to say that you don’t like people who try to “sneak in to the country”, who arrive here “illegally”.  The fact that such people are so often Afghanis, or Iraqis, or Africans, or Muslims is rarely commented on, perhaps because to comment on it would be to begin to consider where these people had come from, and what they’re fleeing from, and if you begin to humanise a person it becomes much harder to convince yourself that it’s okay to lock that person up indefinitely, to inflict further trauma upon them, just because they don’t have an entry visa.

I don’t know what to do about this mouse in my kitchen.  A mouse-trap seems far too cruel a punishment: the animal doesn’t deserve to be killed, certainly not in such a brutal manner.  Yet I don’t want it living in my kitchen, foraging in my cupboards, crawling over the benches on which I prepare my meals.  I’m worried about the diseases it might leave behind.  I wonder, though, whether this fear is a little overstated: after all, while I’ve been paralysed by indecision the mouse has been happily living in my kitchen, unseen but active, and I haven’t fallen ill yet.  Prevention, of course, is better than cure, and it’s good to take precautions against illness and misfortune – but I can’t help thinking that even if there is a mouse in my kitchen, even if I am living with this intruder whose presence I didn’t invite, maybe it’s not the end of the world.


  1. This was very cleverly written! I am always kindly disposed towards mice which sneak into the house, mostly because they are cute but also because I'm not unduly worried about diseases - we clean and disinfect often enough that the risk is minimal. But with three cats, the mice which arrive in this house are usually dismembered. Much less welcome. (BTW is there a way that you can allow comments from a named person instead of a link? This is May, I'm not sure if it's going to tell you that when I post it.)

  2. Hi May, thanks for the comment! I've tinkered with the settings so it should be possible now to comment with your own name, or even anonymously if you like.

  3. We are sometimes invaded by the odd mouse and have discovered a humane mousetrap sold at Bunnings. However when a mouse is trapped there you have to find a way to dispose of it. We now take it outside where the magpies keep an eagle eye on the back door and pounce.(If birds pounce?) At least it is a quicker death than slow poisoning