Unless you live in a complete filter bubble, you probably have friends whose jokes or partisan memes make you cringe. And maybe you’re tempted to skip holiday dinners, fishing camp and other situations where you or somebody else is bound to spout something that causes a ruckus. Many of us are tired of the ruckus. And it sure feels like there’s not much on which we can agree.
But maybe there is. And if there’s one thing, then it’s possible we could find other common ground. Which means there’s hope for reconciliation for communities and a country so deeply divided by politics and social issues.
That’s the only good thing I can think of to say about mice.
Mice are almost universally despised by rural dwellers. If the enemy of my enemy is my friend, everyone battling rodent problems can link arms and feel good about being together in this fight.
If you need to be convinced we can agree on something, I understand. After all, you don’t know me, or where I was born, or who you might know that I could be related to, or what agenda I’m trying to further by amplifying disdain for nasty creatures that invade our buildings and cars, causing damage and spreading disease.
So try an experiment: Go on Facebook and post a message asking for advice on how to get rid of mice. You probably will get advice and support from people across the spectrum on other issues. That is, unless you’ve unfriended or been unfriended by anyone whose vote could cancel out yours. And let’s face it: Because of what they share on social media, you think you know who those people are, even though you may never actually discuss hot topics with them.
Rodent rage as a unifier may come in handy some time when you’re trying to remind people that we love each other, dagnabit, or we’re good neighbors who will show up if your house is on fire and won’t hide when your kid is selling stuff for a school fundraiser. Still, it’s a little tricky to use at the dinner table on Easter Sunday. So here are a few tips that might help.
Everyone has a story to tell. Remember that tale about how Dad heard Mom’s screams all the way from the barn when a mouse jumped out of the laundry basket? Or how mice packed dog food into the space between the firebox and the case of the wood stove, and the horrible stench that filled the house when you lit a fire? Or the neighbor who knew she finally caught that mouse the night the trap fell into a recycling bin full of crushed aluminum cans? You can stand to hear those stories again. It may not be the first choice for dinner conversation from someone who spent two days baking pies, but it’s preferable to a verbal volley over talking points. The question is, how do you steer the conversation in a gross but unifying direction? You need the right bait.
Ask questions. There’s nothing more attractive to most people than being asked to talk. And there’s no better way to take the wind out of a windbag than to ask them to talk about something you can stand to listen to. You might have to practice in front of a mirror to get the delivery just right: “Sorry to interrupt, Uncle Wilbur, but I’ve been meaning to ask for your advice about a mouse problem.” Advice is the peanut butter in your trap. It doesn’t matter if everyone else at the table knows it’s a trap, as long as it works and they can eat their pie in peace. But that doesn’t mean you can tune out. Because asking questions only works if you listen to the answers.
Listen like it matters. Who knows, there might be something you can learn from someone who’s flat-out wrong about everything else. And you just might hear it if you’re not listening with the primary purpose of identifying points for rebuttal. If you’ve already tried sealing up every tiny crack and hole with steel wool and caulk, don’t cut them off. Instead, ask which grade of steel wool and which brand of caulk they recommend. If you can keep them talking about mice, you can avoid more divisive topics, at least for a while.
Draw others in. If you’re going to talk about rodents at a holiday dinner, you want to get everyone talking about rodents. To draw others into a conversation that (probably) won’t end with someone storming out, you may have to interrupt a speaker. Just remember that your intent is to keep others engaged in the conversation. So make your interruptions respectful then relinquish the floor to someone else as quickly as possible. For example, suppose Uncle Wilbur is telling the story of the time when Grandma’s TRS-80 Model 4 came back from being cleaned and Grandpa handed her a huge plastic bag filled with the mouse nest they removed from it:
Excuse me, Uncle Joe, would you tell the kids what a TRS-80 Model 4 was? They’ll get a kick out this.
If kids are within a reasonable distance to kick under the table, do so to give them a heads up: You’re on. This will be more effective if the person who baked all the pies bans screens at the table (after taking the obligatory Norman Rockwell-ish picture of everyone seated for an idyllic family holiday dinner, of course).
Enlist allies. Others may agree that talking about mice is preferable to political strife at the table, but not realize that’s what you’re trying to do. It doesn’t hurt to make sure they get the memo (or text, or Snapchat) that you need their help in steering conversation to more unifying topics. It’s worth mentioning to younger members of your family (and possibly others) that this doesn’t mean you don’t value their opinions on important issues. Be prepared to offer suggestions on when might be a good time for more serious conversations, and how to begin them. “You know, if you offer to help wash dishes with Auntie Em, it might give you a chance to say, ‘I heard what you said about (insert sensitive topic) and I’m curious about how you formed that opinion’”. It’s also worth mentioning that just as events in the kids’ lives help form their opinions, the same is true of others. So we might not see eye to eye, but we can respectfully thank them for sharing. No one is asking you to set aside your core values or pretend to agree with anything, only to listen to other points of view with the respect you would like to receive when sharing yours.
Have an exit strategy. If a civil conversation on serious topics starts to derail, you might be able to go back to mice: “So, did you keep a cat in the milkhouse?” Sometimes, though, you simply have to disengage: “Excuse me, I want to go write down that grade of steel wool for packing into entry holes.” In the early stages of my mother’s dementia, picking political fights gave her an adrenaline rush and she generally chose to do it in the car on our way somewhere. If you can’t physically remove yourself from one of those conversations, you may have to make a hard turn. “By the way, did you know that the use of plant-based materials in vehicles may make them more attractive to rodents? I was surprised to learn that major automakers have published service bulletins on how to how to deal with chewed wiring harnesses.” It may take a couple more nonsequiturs to get across the idea that you will not engage. If you run out of mouse items to drop, try football. “How ’bout those Packers” was my signal that I needed reinforcements from the front seat.
Show some empathy. If your nephew’s vegan fiance is at the table, best not to bring up your highly lethal 5-gallon bucket mouse trap system. Tell the youngsters who just bought an old farmhouse privately that you’ll send them more information this fall. But let the city cousins believe you catch and release, if they’re more comfortable with that. Until you’ve had to clean every cupboard and corner of a kitchen and wash everything in a linen closet multiple times, the death penalty might seem harsh. The ones who move to cute country cottages may come over to the dark side once they learn that trapped rodents are often weakend in their captivity, and it doesn’t take long for foxes, coyotes and raptors to finish the job. Or they learn to donate their live captives to the local raptor rehabilitation center.
Expect the unexpected. When the conversation swings around to poisons, your no-kill cousin’s surprise ally might be the coyote-hunting cousin. Actually, it’s not hard to all be on the same side here when you know that about 10,000 families each year experience rodenticide poisoning, mostly in children under the age of six. These poisons can also be lethal to pets and non-target wildlife species, including those that help keep rodent populations in check. As researchers reported last year,
“Without as many foxes, hawks and owls to eat them, mice crank out babies. And we end up with forests packed with mice — mice that are chronically infected with Lyme and covered with ticks.”
Those who spend a lot of time exposed to Lyme-carrying ticks might be the first to suggest non-poison pest control options, and suggest you spread the word to your friends and neighbors. Because poison is a problem that can spread:
“If a neighbor sets out bait, the rodents that take it can then wander onto your property. They will grow weaker as the toxicosis spreads through their system, and they often twitch as they are dying. Your pet might want to investigate this creature – might even want to play with it…So even if you have no bait around your home, your pet isn’t automatically safe.”
Filter. There are family stories that should be put in the vault and never spoken of again. My mother never forgave me for that time I was sewing a backdrop for the Christmas pageant and brought burlap sacks into the house without first turning them inside out and running them over repeatedly with a tractor to make sure they were mouse-free. Let’s not bring it up again. And despite the effectiveness of the 6-foot-long rat snake that keeps mice under control around a friend’s cabin, I would never have brought it up at my late mother-in-law’s table (although her sons might have). I also wouldn’t share the story about how we found a pile of birdseed under the covers when we stayed at a friends’ house, because she would be mortified. Even with all identifying details expunged, you know how stories get around and back to someone you never thought would hear them. Besides, it’s good practice to ask yourself, “How will telling this story make others feel?” and make considered choices based on kindness.
Don’t give up. When you live in the country, mouse deterrence is not a problem you solve once and move on. It’s a way of life. Sort of like learning to get along with people you may not agree with. So you may have to try different things at different times, and be willing to at least consider what may seem like suggestions from crazytown. For example, we’ve been luckier than some of our friends (so far, knock wood) and mice seem to leave our car alone. But I am glad to learn that leaving the hood up during the day can discourage mice from taking up residence. Would I share that with the nieces and nephews who probably already think we’re a little kooky? Especially when it’s almost impossible to verify whether the technique is effective? Maybe, but I might want to stress the “for what it’s worth” and that I read it on the internet, so it should be understood that they take it with a grain of salt.
Be prepared for fake news. I can almost guarantee that someone involved in your mouse control conversation at Easter dinner will start tagging you with every mouse control post that comes their way on Facebook. Don’t for a second think the term “clickbait” is unrelated to the classic mouse snap trap. If you take the bait (sure, I’ll do this fun quiz on what kind of movie mouse I would be), well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. I fall for the same “20 All-Natural Mouse Deterrents” post every time a different friend shares it. As in most things on social media, some sources are more credible than others, and it’s up to you to do a little critical thinking and possibly some research before you click Share or invest in ultrasonic gizmos. When someone shares a link that goes to a page whose main purpose is to get me to buy something, I am skeptical. When someone I know recommends a technique or product and I find it also recommended by a credible source (like an extension agency, land grant university or public health department), I’m more likely to try it. For example:
“Use enough traps to eliminate the rodents quickly. (Using too few traps is a common error by individuals attempting to control mice.) Mice seldom venture far from their shelter and food supply, so place traps no more than 10 feet apart in areas where mice are active. Leaving traps unset until the bait has been taken at least once (prebaiting) often increases the success of trapping.”
Trust but verify. That’s not to say there isn’t credible information about rodent control products on the internet. But we could all stand to be a bit more questioning about who profits from what. And there must be profit in rodent control products, or they wouldn’t take up a whole aisle at your local farm, fleet or feed store. You’ll find every size and variety of snap traps, no-touch traps, glue boards, poisons, bait stations, scent repellents, ultrasonic deterrents and more. If you’re lucky, you’ll also find someone who has worked there forever: Tell them about your mouse situation. They may ask you a few questions to get a better handle on your needs before they offers helpful suggestions based on years of experience helping your neighbors deal with the same problem. Sure, you could just order online by clicking on an in-feed ad that pops up after you click on the bait. But will that prompt you to also buy more steel wool and caulk? Actually, it might, because those algorithms have gotten so very, very good at driving all kinds of behaviors. Wouldn’t it be satisfying to ignore those online persuasions and talk to a real person who can sympathize and echo the sentiment that mice are vile?
Be patient. It’s not that I’m opposed to social media. But talking to people face-to-face has its rewards. For example, my elderly father fell and broke his hip recently. I had just started a draft of this article when I left to be with him in the hospital and at rehab. One day we were both tired and needed a distraction other than basketball or another episode of Gunsmoke. So I told him about the article and asked him, “How did you keep mice under control in the milkhouse?” He thought about it, and said, “I don’t remember it being a problem, since we always had a cat.” Then we talked about whether you could keep a cat outside in a barn with no animals throwing off heat, and my friend who keeps a heat lamp in the garage to keep their cats warm. We talked about another friend’s technique for trapping feral cats on the farm so she can get them spayed and neutered, and how people still dump dogs on country roads. We talked about people who move to the country and are surprised to find racoons in the garage where they keep the dog food, and about the time our beagle cornered a raccoon in the milkhouse. We talked about how that beagle loved to sit on the porch and bay when my sister was learning to play the piano, and how much we still love to hear her play.
We talked, and the conversation took many turns. It was a welcome distraction from pain and politics, which we take care to avoid. And it’s not like we were in a hurry to be somewhere else. It takes a bit of patience sometimes to wander through stories and keep finding something to talk about. Things Dad may not remember, because he was pretty out of it. Things you may not share on social media, where a quick rant is liable to garner more likes than a long, drowsy reflection.
If you need a model for that kind of patience, watch a cat who plunks herself down by the gap between the stove and the cabinets in the sure and certain hope that a mouse will do what mice do. Better still, watch two cats holding that kind of vigil. Together. United.
Then check your pillow before you climb into bed.
Donna Kallner lives in rural northern Wisconsin, where she has tested many types of rodent control in the old garage that is now her workshop. She recommends making mice unwelcome with good old-fashioned tin can lids nailed over holes in the floor.