Our animal chaplain share what it's like to choose compassion for the smallest of beings, even when it's difficult.
“‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse,” claims the oft-recited poem. Originally published anonymously, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” quickly became a beloved staple of holiday traditions.
This line returns to me today, not because I’m feeling festive, but because my cats have ensured its authenticity in my home. Indeed, either Bubba-ji or Deacon (or both, perhaps, through partnership) has made a mouse silent in our home.
Caring for a Mouse After Death
The little one lies on the bathroom rug, unmoving, feet straight up in the air as if precisely instructed by a Tom & Jerry cartoon. I sigh audibly and head out of the bathroom for supplies, closing the door behind me to ensure the cats don’t do further damage.
I grab gloves and paper towels to safely handle the critter and an empty bread bag to transport them outside. Then I stop myself. A bag doesn’t feel quite right today.
If it were summer, I’d just transfer the body from the bag into an area of the yard I call “The Vortex.” It’s a bunch of fallen tree limbs my husband stacked into a triangular structure, with a wide opening in the front under a flag that states “Peace to All Beings.” Gently placing the tiny body inside, I would cover the mouse with dried foliage, profess my sadness that their life here is over, and wish them an auspicious next lifetime.
But it is winter, and so other preparations must be made. I grab a small gift box covered in a holly design and place a paper towel in the bottom―even though I know the mouse doesn’t need a cushioned surface any more than a human laid in a puffy satin-lined coffin does. On top of the body, I place two leaves from a poinsettia in our front hallway with a bit of dark laughter. (The plant is mildly toxic to cats and dogs, with the potential to make them vomit or drool, hence why it is relegated to a cat-free area of our home.)
The kill must have happened earlier in the day because the body is only lukewarm, and the cats don’t seem overly interested in what I’m doing. I summon Bub over to see what his response might be. He reaches a paw out to tap the mouse, and I gently brush it away, offering, “Mouse is dead, Bub. Anything you want to say?” He gives me the look I always interpret as, “Geez, lady, just doin’ what I do. I’m a cat.”
He’s right, of course. Cats are particularly good at finding mice. And we humans have rewarded them for it.
A Brief History of Cats and Mice (and Humans)
Zooarchaeologists suggest that the practice of keeping cats coincided with house mouse invasions over 6,500 years ago.
Modern animal behaviorists suggest that house-bound domestic cats tend to stalk and kill mice rather than eat them because they were not taught to kill and eat by their mothers. Plus, we humans regularly train cats to play with inedible mouse toys to assuage their boredom.
There are other reasons that could explain why Bub and Deacon left the mouse fully intact on my bathroom floor. Since they are well-fed by me, that might afford a cat time to really enjoy a hunt without worrying about food running away. Further, most behaviorists suggest cats have a hunting drive that is separate from their appetite. Hunting may serve a different purpose than food collection.
It’s remarkable that we humans also maintain a separation between love and repulsion about mice. Mickey Mouse has become a billion-dollar brand and now appears on everything from children’s pajamas to wristwatches and cruise ships. According to one report, Mickey has better name recognition than Santa Claus! On the flip side, we eradicate entire populations of free-living mice with poison and kill an estimated 100 million each year in labs to fuel supposed scientific discovery.
How Different Religions Value Cats and Mice
This duality extends into religious views as well. The Book of Kells features an image of a cat chasing a mouse with a bit of communion host in her mouth. “This humorous image stands out to me,” offers theologian Paul Stoble. “The image vividly shows how Christ reaches into even the smallest and most everyday cares of our lives.” Likewise, a story is told that when a mouse became injured on the Ark after being chased into a hole by a cat, Noah stitched up his wound. And a Buddhist tale tells of the auspiciousness of picking up a dead mouse. (Read full the story here!)
On the other hand, I’ve read that the prophet Muhammad once said, “There are five animals for which there is no blame on the one who kills them: crows, kites, mice/rats, scorpions, and mad dogs.” And there are plenty of instances in the Talmud pointing to mice around food sources as dangerous. “Mice seem to be creatures of paradox,” observes Donald Ray Schwartz, author of Noah’s Ark: An Annotated Encyclopedia of Every Animal Species in the Hebrew Bible, “On the one hand … we feel repulsed by [them]; on the other hand, in our children’s literature and in cartoons, they seem to appeal to our sensibilities of the rooting for the clever underdog.”
My own home reflects this contradiction. I want the cats to be happy and live as naturally as possible when being kept captive in a home. On the other hand, I root for the mice to live free from pain and the fear of being murdered. And, of course, I want us all to be protected from zoonotic diseases that can be spread between humans and animals.
Indeed, I’ve already put in place many tips from PETA’s Humane Mouse Removal Guide. I’ve even considered invoking Saint Gertrude of Nivelles. It’s said that with a single prayer, she could banish mice. However, no one seems to have a copy of that exact prayer, and I’m worried about just what banishment might entail.
A Sacred Sendoff for a House Mouse
And so, in the end, I pull my waterproof boots on and trudge out through the snow to The Vortex. I lay the small mouse-in-a-box on the ground and sweep some fluffy snow over the top. Finally, I offer a sacred sendoff:
Dear little mouse, I’m so sorry about the cats. They are just doing what they do. I know that’s no excuse for the fear and pain you must have felt. I know it’s no excuse for the grief your family might feel if they live around here. I realize I’m complicit since I keep the cats in a place you also call home. I don’t have a better answer for how we can co-exist more peacefully right now. And for this, I am heartbroken. But I hope that you will know the remorse and sadness I feel. I pray that I will be guided toward creative answers. But, above all, I hope you are happy, joyous, and free from pain and fear in the What’s Next.
Want more ideas for memorializing animals? Read "How to Give a Furry Wake."