Thursday, 10 March 2011

Breeding Like Mice


It began with a cage, a cage Felicity dragged all the way home from town. It was large and heavy and, by the time she reached our house, one of her arms was longer than the other.
I’d already said, “No mice!”
“But the cage was such a bargain, Mum. And the boys would love a mouse… We have a cage now. We might as well get a mouse… or two. What do think, Mum?”
I should have said no. I should have sent the cage straight back to the St Vincent de Paul store. Some other family could have bought it and had a mouse adventure instead of us. But I looked at all the begging eyes staring at me and promised to take everyone to town to look at mice.
Of course, we couldn’t buy just one mouse. No, that mouse would have been far too lonely and that would have been very cruel… or so I was told. So we came back with two mice.
Soon two little mice were running around the mouse wheel delighting everyone. “But Mum, the cage is so big. It’s big enough for a few more mice.” We returned to the pet shop.
The cage and six male mice took up residence in the boys’ bedroom. This was a problem. The boys’ bedroom is a no go zone for girls. “We never get to see the mice, Mum,” one little girl complained. “We need some mice of our own.” So it was back to the pet shop where we bought a new adventure playground type cage with tunnels and wheels and all sorts of interesting attachments. This time we bought two female mice and soon they were settled in their new home in one of the girls’ bedrooms.
Life ran smoothly for awhile except for the occasional break out from the male mice cage, the mice being slightly smaller than the gap between the bars.
“Which side of the cage are these mice supposed to be on?" Andy would roar at regular intervals, and a boy would come running to return the escapees to the safety of their cage, away from the threat of mice traps and bait. Eventually the mice grow big and fat and the boys were able to relax.
Then Felicity had her bright idea. “Mum, it would be very educational if we bred mice. We could keep records, you know, of all the different traits. It would be just like a genetics experiment.”
“But what would we do with all the babies?”
“Sell them to the pet shop. I saw a sign the other day: ‘Mice Wanted!’”
I should have said no, but I didn’t. Soon we had numerous tiny hairless bundles of newborn mice life occupying the female cage with two happy mothers. The children were fascinated. All the facts and figures were dutifully recorded in scientific notebooks and it looked like the breeding program was going to turn into a very successful  learning experience.
Soon it came time to sell the baby mice and make a small pocket money fortune. “How much do you think we’ll make? ... What shall we buy?” Felicity was sent down to the pet shop to negotiate the business deal. But “Mice Wanted” had turned into “No Mice Needed at the Moment.” She came home and hardly dared tell me the unwelcome news. What would we do with all our little rodents?
The first thing we had to do was separate the males from the females. Felicity did the sorting. “Are you sure you can tell a female from a male?” I asked but Felicity seemed confident. Some time later we realised she wasn’t very good at sexing: she’d overlooked a male. Soon we were back down at the pet shop buying another cage. And then another…
It was turning into a nightmare. Our mouse population was increasing at an enormous rate. However carefully we tried to separate males from females, a male always seemed to end up in the wrong cage. What were we going to do?
One afternoon, I sat down with the children and we talked about the problem. None of the pet shops wanted mice. None of our friends wanted mice. And we couldn’t keep them all. We’d end up with dozens of cages of mice all around the house. And they were beginning to smell really bad.
“How about we let the mice be country mice?” I suggested. We lived on the edge of a farm. Over the fence was a paddock of cows and plenty of country mice. “We could take all the mice down to the paddock and let them go free. They’d much prefer to live in the paddock than in a small cage, I’m sure.”
The kids weren’t so sure. “What if they come back into the house and Dad catches them in his mouse traps?”
"We’ll walk right into the paddock, far from the house before we set them free.”
Nobody could think of a better plan so we put this one into action. The older children carried the cages. The younger ones took food and water: “Just so they have something to eat while they learn to be country mice. They’ve never had to find food on their own before.”
The mice were set free and everyone trooped back to the house. We sat staring out the window looking at the paddock and then tears started falling from the girls’ eyes.  Soon the slowly rolling tears turned into rivers running down little cheeks, and howls and sobs erupted. And I cried too, a big lump in my throat. I hugged little bodies close and I felt them heave with grief.
The girls cried for their lost pets, the little mice who’d scampered up and down their arms and scurried down tunnels and who’d set  wheels revolving. They cried for the loss of their dream: they never imagined it would end so sadly.
And I cried for the girls. I wouldn’t miss the constant cry of “More babies! We need another cage, Mum!” And I wouldn’t miss the smell. In fact I was secretly rather glad we were once again a mouseless family. But my mother’s heart was breaking because of my girls’ tears.
A mother’s heart? How resilient a mother’s heart needs to be. How many times will mine break as each child grows up?: at the death of a pet, when a child gets teased or left out, when she is sick, when she fails and I have to stand quietly by, when she leaves home and my job is done…
All that is left of those mice is this rather blurry photo. Gemma-Rose was a baby at the time and so she cannot remember those mice. She will tell me she has never had a mouse as a pet like the others. What will I do if she looks at me with those huge blue eyes and makes an appeal? Will I say yes when I’ve vowed to say no? I hope not … But nothing is certain…
Am I the only mother with a too soft heart?

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