Thursday, December 4, 2008

On how to kill a mouse.

A few weeks ago, C and I were snuggled on the couch, watching a movie. It was late. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something skitter across the kitchen floor. I dismissed it as a shadow and forgot about it.

A day or two later, I saw it again. This time, it stopped just under the sink, and I saw the characteristic tail curl up and back over a small body. Moments later, C saw it too. We called the apartment manager. We told them that we had seen a mouse and that they should do something about it. They did nothing. We waited a week. We told them again. They did nothing. Finally, last weekend, we decided to take care of it ourselves. I thought about poison, but with a baby in the house---one that has just learned to walk and likes to play in the kitchen---that was a bad idea. I settled on trap that was based on the conventional spring trap design, but that was covered to avoid mess. And we decided that I would set it at night and put it away in the morning to avoid the baby problem.

The first night we caught the mouse. The trap worked smoothly. Just a little peanut butter for bait. In the morning I found his tail sticking out of the trap. I opened the trap and released the spring, dropping the dead rodent into the garbage. I took out the garbage and threw it in the dumpster. I figured that was that.

But then we saw another one. So I set the trap again. This time, it ate the peanut butter without tripping the trap. That puzzled me, so I decided to test the trap with my finger. Bad idea.

So on Monday, after we put the baby to bed, I set the trap again. Not 30 minutes went by before I heard it snap. I went to check it and found that the mouse had gotten just his tail and one back foot caught in it. He was still very much alive. So I took him outside and released the trap. He dropped to the grounds and scampered off, unhurt as far as I could tell. That was two.

On Tuesday, our apartment manager responded. They dropped off two of the sticky glue-style traps. Unlike the spring traps, that trap and usually kill a mouse by pinning it against a hard surface with a metal bar, the sticky traps trap a mouse in glue. It runs across the trap only to find that it cannot keep running. These traps do not kill the mouse instantly or even quickly. However, it is impossible to try to free a mouse from one of the these traps without killing it.

I placed one of the sticky traps Tuesday night. I woke up around 2:00am and heard a lot of squeaking. I figured the (hopefully) last mouse was out and about and would soon be trapped. When I got up around 5:30 I went to check the trap. I was unsurprised to find a mouse trapped in the glue. That was three But when I got close, I could see the small body still breathing---a fast, tiny rising and falling. I flipped on the light and it blinked at me and tried once again to run. But of course, all its legs and the entire left side of its body had adhered immovably to the trap. Instead of running, it produced nothing but a small, pathetic, quivering struggle. Seemingly resigned to the trap, the mouse quit struggling and lay its head down on the glue. I wondered then whether the squeaking I heard was really crying and struggling. It made me sad to think of a scared creature trapped in glue for hours. The mouse directed its eyes at me. I watched a tiny heart beat under the suddenly beautiful two-tone fur.

I thought I might free it from the trap as I did the night before. I went outside in my slippers, sweatpants, and T-shirt and crouched in the new snow under a streetlight. I gingerly peeled up his tail. He swished it side to side. Then I went for back left leg. I was able to pull it up, but when I did, it was bent at an unnatural-looking angle. Unlike the tail, the leg did not move. At this point, the mouse urinated and began to squeak. I knew that there was no chance of freeing him from the trap, but to just throw it away with a broken leg would be too cruel. Better a quick death than a slow, starving, freezing death tossed into a cold Minneapolis dumpster. So I folded the trap over the mouse, put my thumb where his head would have been, and pressed down until I felt a small snap.

I felt bad. But I had done nothing wrong. I reminded myself that rodents can carry disease, that we have a child in the house, that mice are pests, that they're just little creatures anyway. That we humans are, after all, supposed to be in charge here we have dominion over these lesser creations. And I believe all that. Killing the mouse was justified---in the circumstances, even humane. I believe that that's true. I believe that it is justified. But that doesn't answer for me the deeper question: why do I feel compelled to justify it in the first place?

Throughout the day on Wednesday, fragments of scripture flitted across my mind. I thought of Eden and creation. I heard my own voice speaking the words: "the blood of every beast will I require at your hands." See Genesis 9:11 (Joseph Smith Translation). I think of Jesus saying that God the Father notices even when a sparrow dies. See Matthew 10:29; Luke 12:6. I see an aging prophet asking his church to "don't shoot the little birds." See Ensign, (May 1978) 47. I wonder, does God just "see" the sparrow fall? Is he just coldly, scientifically observing? That seems at odds with the power and passion of a God that weeps. See Moses 7:28. I think there's something more to it: He doesn't just see the sparrow fall, he feels it. He laments it, he mourns it.

That phrase "the blood of every beast will I require at your hands"---I kept repeating it in my mind; where does it come from? This morning looked it up. Turns out that this is what God said to Noah after he, his family, and the animals all emerged from the ark into the light of a new world. But that's not all---the passage is not in the King James Version. It comes from the Joseph Smith Translation. The original passage reads almost exactly opposite: "surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man." Genesis 9:5 (KJV). The focus in the King James Version is not on animal life, but on human life. The passage seems to say that God will hold animals accountable for killing human beings.

But Joseph Smith turns this reading on its head. Instead, he says, God will hold human beings accountable for killing animals needlessly. And he sets a pretty high standard for what is needful: "surely, blood shall not be shed, only for meat, to save your lives." Genesis 9:11 (JST). Of course, we can say, that was a different time, a different place. That injunction does not apply to us. But I see a harmony between the principle expressed here and other teachings of Joseph Smith.

In the official history of the Church, he recounts this story:

We crossed the Embarras river and encamped on a small branch of the same about one mile west. In pitching my tent we found three massasaugas or prairie rattlesnakes, which the brethren were about to kill, but I said, ‘Let them alone—don’t hurt them!

How will the serpent ever
lose his venom, while the servants of God possess the same disposition and continue to make war upon it? Men must become harmless, before the brute creation; and when men lose their vicious dispositions and cease to destroy the animal race, the lion and the lamb can dwell together, and the sucking child can play with the serpent in safety.’

The brethren took the serpents carefully on sticks and carried them across the creek. I exhorted the brethren not to kill a serpent, bird, or an animal of any kind during our journey unless it became necessary in order to preserve ourselves from hunger.” 2 History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 71-72; see also
Ensign, (Aug. 2001) 13.

Millennial yearning is not unique to Latter-day Saints. It has been the hope of prophets and poets and preachers throughout the centuries. The prophets of the Old Testament wrote rhapsodically of that day when every valley will be exalted---when every mountain will be made low---when the rough places will be made smooth and the crooked made straight---when the glory of the Lord will be revealed---when all flesh will see it together. And during the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King quoted those passages often for inspiration and hope. But what is unique about Joseph Smith's millenial vision is the explicit way it connects the millennium to the way we human beings use nature. In Joseph's Smith's vision, creation, flood, and millennium are are connected by the silver thread of stewardship.

In the King James version, God tells Noah that animals will be accountable for human life because human beings are made in God's image. In Joseph Smith's translation, God tells Noah that human beings will be accountable for animal life because human beings are created in God's image---and if created in his image, then created to follow his example and be like him.

My compulsion to justify killing the mouse, I think, is a reflection of a deeper truth that life---all life---is precious. I think of what Jacob said: "the one being is as precious in his sight as the other." Jacob 2:21. A loss of life---even a completely justified loss, and even a very small life---is to be mourned.

So this is the question that I ask myself: What does it mean to believe in a God who observes the sparrow's fall, and who will require the blood of every beast at my hands? It can't really mean, literally, that its a sad thing to kill a pest.

But then again, it's easy to forget how radical the religion of Jesus really is.

This morning I found two more dead mice in caught together in the spring trap. That's five.


Warren said...

It sounds like you need to borrow a cat and let it run around your place for a while.

The Shark said...

Here's the dealio: I'm pretty sure the Lord supports a man protecting his family. By ridding your house of a rodent problem, you are ensuring your child's health. Yes, you can release it alive outside, but it's cold outside and the mouse will probably find a way back in, or at least into someone ELSE's house. There's really no practical, kind way to go about it.

This reminds me of my last apartment in BYU where we also had a mouse problem. We caught the first three by hand (well, with bowls) on separate occasions, drove out to a large, open field and released them because we couldn't bear to kill them ourselves. We then used sticky traps and caught two more, I think. The first one we caught was in a similar state as you describe -- I'm pretty sure he was panicking so badly that he was in shock. He had made a bowl movement all over the trap, too. My roommate took care of him. I took care of the next one but still couldn't bring myself to actually do him in, so he ended up suffering a slow, painful death in the dumpster. Perhaps I will be held accountable for not having the guts to do the better thing.

Finally management sent in pest control and they brought in some poison.

JKC said...

Yes, Shark, I agree that it isn't wrong to get rid of rodents. I'm feeling no guilt about it.

But I do feel bad about the sticky trap. That just seems like needless suffering. Sure, it's more convenient, but I think the spring traps are more humane.

The Shark said...

Definitely agree with you there. Plus it's just easier to have to deal with a mouse corpse than using your own hands to crush the little guy.

Amanda said...

FIVE? That gives me the heebie-jeebies.

I had to look up the definition of "require," since the idea of requiring something at one's hands seems a strange way of phrasing it.

I like that "require" and "query" are related. When I mourn the end or loss of something, at some point or another I end up asking myself or God or the cosmic void why it happened. Maybe the Lord is that way too? Not that he wonders in the same way we do, but maybe he just asks that we have a good explanation for ending the life of or losing something he created? But that still seems a bit off to me.

It reminds me of something I read in this great book, "Conversations with Elie Wiesel." There's a part where Mr. Wiesel is asked to explain Genesis 3:9 ("And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?") Did the all-knowing Lord really not know where Adam was? Mr. Wiesel's response was something to the effect of this: The Lord did know where Adam was--he asked the question so that Adam would realize where HE was. (Keeping in mind that the Lords asks this question right after Adam and Eve are separated from the presence of the Lord because they ate the fruit.)

Maybe the idea of requiring the blood of every beast at our hands is more akin to the Lord asking us why we killed his creations so that we can understand the full import of our actions, sort of a "Do you realize what you just did?" And in that way maybe he's just asking that we be mindful of our motivations and not take the act of killing creatures lightly, that we show some reverence in the act somehow, if at all possible?

That may be softening it too much. Oh well, just a thought.

JKC said...


"Require at your hands" appears to have been a pretty common construction in Jacobian English. It looks like Beckett, Wesley, and the Mayflower pilgrims all used it. Beckett said that he felt that God would require King Henry's blood at his hands if he didn't warn him to depart from sinfulness. Wesley used it to describe how God would deal with those who encouraged others to sin. The Mayflower pilgrims used to to say simply that God would require them to be wise as they set up their society.

It seems to me to express the idea of accountability. We own our actions---they are ours; and we have to recognize that.

I don't think it means, literally, that God will ask us to restore the life (blood) that we have taken. We can't do that, and he knows, it. And I don't think it means that it is absolutely wrong to take animal life.

The idea of requiring animal life at our hands also has to be balanced against the notion that even though God doesn't forget even one sparrow, human beings "are of more value than many sparrows." Luke 12:7. And that we have been given the power to use animal life for our own uses.

I guess what I'm saying is that there are plenty of reasons that justify taking animal life, but the fact is that it has to be justified. It can't just be for no reason. The result, for me, is that even though killing an animal is not always a bad thing, at some level, it is still a sad thing.

I think requiring the blood of every beast means, similar to what you're saying, that when we take animal life, we have a good reason for it. I think you're right, that it is a caution to be aware of our motivations, combined of course, with the notion that it is not just by our actions, but by our desires as well that we are judged.

I think you're absolutely right that when we take animal life, we ought to show some reverence in the act. I've read that some native American tribes had a ritual where, just after killing an animal, the hunter would pray to the animal's spirit, thanking it for the use of its body to preserve himself and his family from cold and hunger.

While our religion isn't really consistent with praying to non-deities, I think we can take that ritual as an example of what it means to show some reverence in the act of killing. I suppose that brings a new perspective to a mealtime prayer. Maybe a way to avoid "vain repetitions."

It is interesting that the first instance we have in the scriptures of someone taking animal life is God himself doing it. After Adam and Eve fall, the Lord makes coats of skins to clothe them. I think it's fair to infer that he killed animal to get the skin. That was John Wesley's opinion. It also jibes with the notion that God taught Adam and Eve about sacrifice.

At some level, the idea of one of God's creatures giving up its life and to save another of his creatures (from hunger, cold, etc.); and the idea of that one using his own body to feed the others, is deeply symbolic of the atonement. Maybe that's why we are supposed to be so reverent about it.

Amanda said...

JKC, those are some great insights. I agree whole-heartedly.