Last night, while Tony and Bobby were beating the bejesus out of each other over a game of Monopoly gone very bad, we faced a situation also fraught with violence, or at least potential violence: the escape of a mouse from Mousefarm.
I say "potential violence" because, if we study man's relationship to mouse so far, it always ends in...bummersville for the mouse. Especially when man is surprised, or startled by mus's rapid, darting shots along the wallboard--the movements that so often evoke the sound known as "eek!" In fact, I will proposed here that the basic relationship between mouse and man can be summed up in three words: Dart, eek!, WHAM!
The first two of these are essentially physiologic responses: the mouse, confronted with an open, unknown space--as my escapee, Mo, did last night--will reflexively respond by engaging in rapid wall-back, or thigmotaxis (see:Soprano syndrome in the mouse house). The human, somewhere deep in the hypothalamus, reponds with the classic and, of course, uncontrollable "startle" reponse, which kicks in the fear and fight hormones. Thus: WHAM!
But somewhere between "eek" and "wham" lies, well, civilization, if you think about it. For it's the modulation of the impulse to immediately strike back that makes us who we are, when , of course, we're not beating the bejesus out of some middle eastern upstart.
Dart, eek! WHAM!
As my wife and I chased Mo around the living room, trying to capture her in a little box, I felt something happen to me. My face flushed; there was a trickle of adrenaline in the back of my throat and a gleam in my eye--I could feel it. Blood lust: mice provoke that in humans in a way I have seldom seen with other animals.
I think that is because the mouse, for most of our history a pest to be destroyed, in a wierd way gives license to irrational blood lust, which we, as humans,are taught to normally supress for the greater good. This gives rise to the "naughty boy" impulse to make light of the ills of our fellow mammals, a kind of mus-ische schadenfreude ( with Yiddish and German you can never go wrong!).
You can see this in a lot of early American nature literature. In his "Life Histories of Northern Animals," (Doubleday Page, 1926), the normally reserved naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton goes on and on, in telling detail, about the many "enemies of the mouse. " Among them are the Northern Shrike, whose prowess can be measured by "the bodies of the numerous mice fastened in the branches of bushes or on fences, sometimes partly eaten, sometimes having only the brains taken out..." Or the brown sandhill crane, known to use his powerful beak to "crunch them and swallow them whole with much apparnent relish." Almost as much relish as Seton has writing about it. Snakes, badgers, wolves weasels and cat--all of them, says Seton, "are far more dependent on the Muridae for their sustenance than on the great ruminants."
What of man? Says Seton: "Man's attitude (toward animals) has always been that of destroyer. Some he destroys necessarily for food or for valuable skins; others for the pure love of the chase."
I've seen this in normally placid lab workers, who, asked what their favorite way of drawing mouse blood is, respond perkily with such terms as "why, the eye-stick, of course," (so named for the intraocular method that is exactly what it sounds like) and "the tail jab" (ditto). Or among mouse medical professionals: A recent lab animal conference included a special workshop called "Euthanasia: It's a Gas." Oh so naughty! Oh so fun!
And I saw that as my effort to get Mo back in the cage were frustrated, time and time again. "Don't grab so hard!" my wife chastized me at one point. "She's just afraid."
Eventually, we got Mo back in. But by this time Tony and Bobby had made up, and Tony had sent Bobby to do his first hit.