The terrifying rise of the urban supermouse
It's more resilient, more resourceful and more ruthless than ever before
Tuesday 30 April 2002
Something decidedly odd is stirring in Mouseland. Behind the skirting-board of a million living-rooms, beside 10,000 overflowing restaurant bins, inside 100,000 ancient attics and modern ventilator ducts, grey fur is pricking and tiny snouts are twitching with a new species-pride. Wherever four or five representatives of the species
Mus musculus are gathered, a radical new spirit is in the wind. A hundred million tiny, grey, scurrying, nosy, endlessly nibbling little balls of incontinent fluff are at a turning-point in their history. And because of the close relationship that has existed for centuries between us and them, it may be a turning-point for humans, too.
Something decidedly odd is stirring in Mouseland. Behind the skirting-board of a million living-rooms, beside 10,000 overflowing restaurant bins, inside 100,000 ancient attics and modern ventilator ducts, grey fur is pricking and tiny snouts are twitching with a new species-pride. Wherever four or five representatives of the species Mus musculus are gathered, a radical new spirit is in the wind. A hundred million tiny, grey, scurrying, nosy, endlessly nibbling little balls of incontinent fluff are at a turning-point in their history. And because of the close relationship that has existed for centuries between us and them, it may be a turning-point for humans, too.
Mice. We're talking mice, of course, the nation's favourite rodent and the nation's most annoying pest. We love and hate mice in about equal measure. We tell our children how fantastically sweeeeet mice are, how snuggly and nest-loving they are, how whisker-bristlingly cute and adorably inquisitive, how brave and enterprising they are in outsmarting horrible cats and cooks with rolling-pins. We show or tell them stories about Mickey and Jerry and Maisie, and the Town Mouse and the Country Mouse, The Clangers, and the hero of the Mouse Hunt movie. We romanticise them as swashbuckling adventurers, full of derring-do and cheek and bold, leap-to-freedom escapes – The Three Mousketeers.
We think of their tiny bodies as food (a "mouse-buttock" or "mousepiece" was the old name for a foreleg of beef) or plants (a "mouse-ear" is a plant with tiny soft leaves).
We give them new identities as the tiny but essential agents that drive major machines – a "mouse" used to be the name of the match that was applied to a cannon on the field of battle; today, it's the little device that lets you adjust the cursor on a computer screen.
We can even give their bodies quasi-romantic status, as something terribly sweeeeet and shy and flirtatious, like the teeny mouse-feet of the bride in Sir John Suckling's poem about a Civil War wedding:
"Her feet beneath her petticoat,
Like little mice stole in and out,
As if they feared the light."
But then, those were the days when calling your beloved "My little mouse" would not automatically elicit a smack in the kisser.
But when we stop finding mice appealing and charming, we cannot abide the little bastards. They are, by some way, the biggest pest found in UK homes – far more prevalent than rats or cockroaches or lice. We spend a fortune every year calling in pest operatives, buying mousetraps and devising ingenious, villainous ways of sending them squealing to an early grave. We see them as a threat to our homes, our children (mouse allergies are partly responsible for the rise in child asthma) and – to be bluntly capitalist about it – to property values.
According to recent evidence, they're on the increase. The hot news in the rodent universe is that mice are evolving, mice are getting smarter, and mice are no longer dying in the way they're supposed to. Figures from Rentokil, the nation's leading pest-control organisation, tell us that, while the mouse population seems to be decreasing nationwide, in London it's increasing in a squeaking crescendo –14 per cent up on last year. In Birmingham, the figure's the same.
And incidental, word-of-mouth evidence seems to confirm it: stories abound in the metropolis of couples moving into ritzy new homes in central London and finding a sitting tenant in their gleaming new home – one that nibbles the standard-lamp flex all night, fuses the lights and leaves a spoor of buckshot across the Berber rugs. A mouse was spotted the other day in the brasserie of a stratospherically trendy £400-a-year media-celebrity club. Smart City firms, whose partners would never previously have dreamt of acknowledging that they had a problem with mouse infestation, now airily discuss their "pest-control contract" with rat-catcher hitmen.
What's more disturbing is that the mice represented by these figures are no ordinary "cow'rin, tim'rous beasties" (in Robert Burns's happy phrase). They're New Mice. Clued-up and streetwise, they are not going to be caught in traps, nor succumb to poison, the traditional assaults by disobliging humans. New Mice are far too smart for that. New mice know better than to investigate a baited trap or an unusual box with unfamiliar food in it. And even if they bring themselves to eat it, there are less chances that they'll die as a result.
"What has changed is the behavioural resistance of some mice," said Richard Strand, chief executive of the British Pest Control Association. "Normally, as a species, they're very inquisitive, they like to go into new holes and boxes, they like to nibble grain foods, and we exploit these things in order to control them with rodenticides. But some of them have just stopped behaving predictably. They won't go into boxes any more. Ninety per cent of mice still do, and we can still control them, but there are 10 per cent who won't. They survive and then their offspring won't go into boxes either..."
Gracious. Was Mr Strand hinting at the arrival of an über-mouse, a mouse totally immune to poison and unimpressed by traps, a mouse that will not be lured to its death by any come-into-my-parlour blandishments, a mouse that leans against the wall examining its fingernails, a mouse in Police sunglasses, a mouse with a mobile phone? "No, that's just journalism," said Mr Strand, shortly. "But there is an evolutionary process at work here. Mice have always been fantastically adaptable. Now there are more and more mice that are tolerant of poison and shy of bait and won't go into boxes. It's natural selection – pure Darwinism happening right in front of us."
The adaptability of mice is a phenomenon that draws whistles of admiration from seasoned professionals in the pest-control world. I spoke to Robin Paradise, who runs Albany Environmental Services in Wardour Street, Soho, a company whose discreet name masks a year-round jihad against mice, rats, cockroaches and other nasty, scurrying things. His firm specialises in offices and restaurants in central London, and he paints a vivid picture of a marauding army steaming through the metropolis like a million muggers. "There has been an huge upsurge in the rodent population," he says. "It's about 37 per cent over the last nine years. But while you can talk about 'an increase in rat activity', with mice, it's a rampage. They breed at such an alarming rate, they're naturally inquisitive and territorial, they naturally want a haven indoors, unlike rats, who prefer outdoors. And they get everywhere. I've heard stories of mice living in freezers, who've adapted to the cold by growing hair. I've found them nesting in old wasps' nests.
"We're constantly called out to restaurants who were changing the light bulbs every night before realising that mice have been chewing through wires in the ceiling."
Mr Paradise reminded me of that essential piece of schoolboy information that you edit from your adult memory: that mice have to keep gnawing, compulsively, to stop their teeth growing because, if they stopped, their tiny fangs would grow at terrible speed, curl backwards until they poked through the roof of their mouths and would finally pierce the brain, fatally. It's quite a picture: the marauding army, each foot-soldier desperate to file down his dangerous, self-destroying teeth on anything that comes to hand. "You might get an infestation that starts in the kitchens of a 20-storey office block," says Paradise. "Then they'll spread out, exploring through the building, over all the 20 floors, seeing what's around, finding food where people have had lunch at their desks, or where the cleaners don't come in until the morning. But they won't all stay in the same place, because the dominant mice will kick out the less dominant ones, who'll have to go and find food elsewhere..."
This bizarre lurch into the world of tribal rivalry reminds us that the New Mice, for all their insouciance, are still the disgusting little blighters they always were before we started finding them cute. They can each produce 80 droppings a day, and, because they're incontinent, will spend much of their time peeing on the run. Contrary to childish belief, they are not clean with baby-soft fur – they leave long greasy smears along the wall of an adopted mice-run. And they're carriers of salmonella and many parasites and diseases. God, they're revolting.
So, how do you get rid of them? Entering the world of mouse control is stepping into a murky kingdom of bizarre word-of-mouth advice and infernal death machines. You could invest in a battery-operated "Zapper" that lures mice (and rats) into a narrow Kill Chamber and fries them with 100 volts. You could acquire a "glue board" on which the critter's little feet will get stuck, after which you can starve it to death or drown it or whack it with a shovel. You can go for the time-honoured mousetrap (they're known in the trade as "snap-traps"), but they tend to be frowned upon by professionals. "There is visible, audible, and scent trauma associated with a death in a snap-trap or glue-board," sniffs a trade-magazine advertisement for a Zapper. "Snap-traps can be bloody and always cause rodent disconfiguration". (Don't you just love that phrase, "rodent disconfiguration"?) The sharp-end professionals have for years used anticoagulants, which break down blood clots in the bloodstream, so that the mouse effectively bleeds to death.
Since the new Supermouse turned its back on anticoagulants, the controllers have switched to a devilish new plan: they feed them with the equivalent of a massive shot of vitamin D, which, in humans, builds up brittle bones. In the Mus musculus, it's a lethal hit of calcium, and the victims die three days later of kidney stones.
Whole laboratories of research chemists can be found plotting to rid the world of mice. Some elaborate planning is involved: scientists have found that some super-intelligent mice can connect a pain in their stomach with the grainy bait they fed on earlier that day, and will resolve not to feed on it again. So they're now working on a time-delay tactic, to poison a mouse over three days until it has forgotten which pile of food it ate from 48 hours earlier. Such painstaking labour! Such (it is, I'm afraid, the only word) rat-like cunning! So many man-hours devoted to the elimination of this tiny but multi-headed enemy. You'd almost think we were gripped by a kind of species embarrassment – as if we have to kill umpteen million mice to sever some connection or relationship they had with us.
You'd be almost right. Theorists in distant centuries suggested that there was a long-felt bond between mice and men, a fundamental sympathy that may not be as heartfelt as the handshake between Mickey Mouse and Leopold Stokowski in Fantasia, but which lurks atavistically in the human heart and makes us find the little rodents appealing, even as we plot their downfall. It may seem a little one-way, in that mice are parasitical on humans, but not vice versa. ("It goes back thousands and thousands of years," says Richard Strand. "That moment when mice decided that sticking close to humans was a pretty neat thing to do.") But it's there. Robert Burns, for instance, in To a Mouse, declared:
"I'm truly sorry Man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union
An' justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion
An' fellow mortal!"
Just as we consider the ancient Tom & Jerry battle, as it moves into a new era of cool New Mice, a startling report was published this week in Nature, the impossibly abstruse scientific journal. An academic called Anne Weil, from Duke University, North Carolina, told the world of her discovery. She has found a mouse fossil, 125 million years old, preserved in Liaoning Province, China, a fossil with fur and paws and mammal characteristics, a fossil that – according to Ms Weil – could prove that humans are actually descended from mice.
Did you get that? Forget primates and The Descent of Man. We're all descended from mice. Of course, it's logical, really. We owe our being, our hands and teeth, our nesting-instinct and our constant search for food, we owe it all to the tiny rodents we've being trying to catch in traps for thousands of years. For centuries, we've been killing our ancestors and progenitors in mass, unconscious, Oedipal carnage.
No wonder they're fighting back. No wonder the bait-disdaining, poison-tolerating, gum-chewing wide-boy mouse has evolved itself. It's our ancestor. It's mad as hell. And it's not going to take it any more.
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