I have always hated killing animals, including rodents. This aversion has been a longtime city-dweller’s luxury and hypocritical besides: although I was completely vegetarian during my twenties and early thirties, I now eat meat once or twice per week.
Rodents aren’t on the menu in our household, but during the 1960s and 70s, when I lived in Peru off and on for almost three years, I periodically sampled picante de cuy—spicy grilled guinea pig—which is standard fare in the indigenous cultures of the Andes. But I can also recall feeling deep sadness from the age of five and older when I found dead mice in the snap-traps that my parents had set in our family home. The sleek, glossy fur … The slim tails … The tiny paws with those perfectly formed, finger-like claws … The shiny, midnight-black eyes … Killing these animals seemed an injustice.
After graduating from college in 1975, I shared a thin-walled, drafty little bungalow with my girlfriend at the time. Judith and I were avid yogis. One of the precepts we followed was ahimsa, the practice of nonviolence. In addition to being strict vegetarians, we expressed our commitment to ahimsic principles by avoiding any actions that might result in the death of another sentient being. Even flies venturing into our little house benefited from our pacific attitudes: we caught them in jars and released them outside. The notion of setting a spring trap to kill mice was unacceptable. How, then, could we cope with the vermin that raided our pantry, scattered droppings throughout the house, skittered across the floor at night, and at one point even scampered over us in our bed? The infestation was intolerable—but so was the notion of slaughtering the creatures that caused it. Nowadays it’s not difficult to purchase a non-lethal mousetrap, but no manufacturer had marketed anything of the sort back then. Even the Havahart company, well known for making traps designed to catch raccoons, squirrels, and other animals, produced nothing at the time small enough for catching mice. Undeterred, I purchased the smallest Havahart trap available, which was constructed of steel wires too widely spaced to constrain a mouse, and I used surgical sutures to stitch pieces of window screen around the whole device. Judith and I then proceeded to catch a shocking number of mice, sometimes two or three per day, sixteen to eighteen per week, which we deported to a park five or six blocks from our cottage. Problem solved; karma unsullied.
The modus I employed decades later as a family man battling squirrels and mice in suburban New Jersey riffed on the earlier methodology. Squirrels proved to be manageable invaders—easy to catch, easy to deport to a nearby nature preserve. The result was a war of attrition, not of victory, but I prevailed against my foes. Attempting to spare mice through the use of nonlethal mousetraps, however, often produced frustrating outcomes. Tiny creatures don’t last long without food and water. More than once I found my quarry alive but debilitated inside the trap: terrified, hungry, thirsty, exhausted, fur spiky and damp with urine. Sometimes I would forget about the traps altogether, which led now and then to my discovering a dead mouse that had surely died a slow, painful death rather than a quick, painless one.
And the new critter—the snow-white rodent that suddenly appeared in our house on Hyland Hill? How, I wondered, should I respond to her arrival?
A few days after spotting this invader in the garage, I learned from a little Internet research that I’d seen an ermine. This species, also known as the short-tailed weasel, is classified as Mustela erminea and, according to one guide I consulted, “is distinguished from the least weasel (Mustela nivalis) by its larger size and longer tail [and its] prominent black tip.” (Is there a most weasel, too?) Dark and two-toned in warm weather—sandy brown on the back and head, creamy tan on the chest and belly—the ermine’s fur turns pure white in winter. This snowy coat makes the animal’s large, round eyes even more striking than they would look otherwise. The species inhabits territory spanning most of the North American continent. “As with the least weasel, mouse-like rodents predominate in the stoat’s diet,” the guide’s author notes, using the British name for the same creature. “However, unlike the least weasel, which almost exclusively feeds on small voles, the stoat regularly preys on larger rodent species.” Was it possible, then, that because of the ermine’s dietary preferences, any effort I might make to trap and deport ours (I have already started to regard her as “ours”) would be counterproductive? Far from infesting the house, she might be a useful ally in holding down other rodents. Some members of the weasel family will even attack and kill rats. These aspects of the situation suggested that peaceful co-existence might serve both the human and mustelan species residing on our property. On the other hand, weasels burrowing through the walls could easily damage the expensive insulation that we’ve installed to keep the house warm in winter. How, then, should Edith and I cope with the dilemma we faced?