Friday, September 16, 2005

If I Could Be Any Animal on Earth ...

September's Anniversary Artsy Essay Contest

If I could be any animal on Earth ...

You might think, given past entries, that I would like to be a mouse. After all, mice are almost uniquely adapted to survive most catastrophes. The first known mammal was a 125-million-year old shrewlike species named Eomaia scansoria, a progenitor of what we today know as mus musculus. It has been determined that the creature probably inhabited bushes and the lower branches of trees, and probably subsisted on insects.

The wild mouse of today is rapid, can swim well and climb with facility, and has broadened its diet to include fruit, seeds and grains, nuts, and meat, becoming essentially omnivorous.Its drab appearance is well suited to prevention of discovery by larger predators, although smaller carnivores (such as cats) have evolved acute senses of smell and hearing to compensate.

Mice have become indispensable to researchers, particularly in the area of cancer research. It has been discovered that all human genes have counterparts in the mouse genome, making mice supremely suitable for studies involving human diseases.

As with other species domesticated by humans, selective breeding has produced mice rendered appropriate as pets. Herewith an entry from July, expanding upon our personal experiences and observations.

Mice are curious creatures. At times they want nothing to do with you, at other times they will seek affection. They are much like cats, we have discovered; when they have security, they feel free to do whatever takes their fancy. They tend not to quickly embrace the unfamiliar; if we introduce an unknown element into their habitat, such as a cotton ball, they will often inspect it from a distance, waiting to see if it will move or in some other fashion present a possible threat. When it does not, they will dart forward, sniff quickly, and just as rapidly dart away again, looking back to see what, if anything, has changed. It takes a while for them to approach the object in a more leisurely fashion and give it a thorough inspection. Eventually it will become accepted as part of their environment, and the more adventurous mice will conceive a use for it, if there is one, and claim it as their own.Then, of course, all the mice will want it. Just like children.

They enjoy being petted and scratched, but only when it is their idea. Again like cats, the places where they like being scratched the most is in front of the ears and on their foreheads, where their little toes can't quite reach. A favorite place for being stroked is above the base of the tail, but it has to be gentle, as it seems to be quite sensitive. We maintain carefully manicured index fingernails for scratching purposes.

Their eating habits differ. Some mice prefer to take food to a private corner to eat in solitary; others are communal, sitting right at the bowl to eat. Inevitably, a few scuffles will ensue when more than one desires the same morsel. They hold nuts in their paws and gnaw at them in the manner of squirrels, although they don't sit quite as erect; they are slightly hunched. Seeds are rapidly hulled and devoured. We give them tuna, dried or fresh egg yolk, bone meal and oats, which they seem to enjoy; less appealing are the wretched vegetable pellets, which are almost universally scorned. Occasionally, we treat them with cheese and snack foods (we actually ran across a website that claimed that mice do not like cheese. This is a bald-faced lie. We can personally attest that mice love cheese.) Once we gave them some Ritz Bits; they liked the peanut butter flavor but scorned the 'cheese'-flavored crackers. Their palates can apparently discern the difference between real cheese and whatever processed matter Ritz uses to produce the crackers.

Something that never fails to amuse us is the perusal of exterminators' advertisements. Invariably they depict mice as scruffy, almost mangy creatures, and their ears appear to be notched or torn, as if Mike Tyson had attempted to snack upon them. In reality, mice are among the most fastidious of creatures, spending long minutes grooming and preening their beautiful fur. To watch them wash their faces is a rare joy, an action from which we always derive much pleasure.

Their eyes can be most expressive, almost paradoxically so, since we rarely, if ever, see the whites. By observing the light reflected from their pupils, we can tell in which direction they are looking (we have found this to be true of parakeets also.) There are all sorts of opinions to be found regarding whether mice have good eyesight; it has been our experience that they can see keenly up to a distance of approximately 6 yards; beyond that they can certainly detect movement, but we are unsure of how much detail they can make out.

Their noses, of course, are the most important sense organ that they possess. When confronted with the unknown or unfamiliar, the first action that they take is to raise their heads fractionally and twitch their noses. Their heads bob slightly up and down and turn from side to side, whiskers quivering, seeking the source of whatever has claimed their attention.

The ancestors of mice, shrew- or vole-like creatures, were among the first of the true mammals, and mice are likely to be one of the surviving species of a major natural (or human-created) disaster. (This is a cute site if you want to learn more.)

We have watched our mice evince watchfulness, curiosity and confusion, animosity and affection. We have seen them engage in love and war (how human of  them!) It never fails to amaze us that entities with such seemingly small brains are capable of so much more than basic instinctual behavior. We have learned much from these tiny but fascinating companions, not the least of which is that all the Creator's creatures have souls.

You might think that after all that, a mouse is what I would like to be. This, though, is the animal that I think I would most like to be.

Some years ago, I was afforded an opportunity to rescue a chipmunk from danger, and was rewarded with a surprising relationship. Early one summer I had gone out to retrieve the mail, and, glancing toward our neighbors' yard, saw an unsettling scene. Our neighbors' cat was terrorizing a chipmunk - batting at it, desisting until the chipmunk made an attempt at escape, then swatting it again. The poor little creature was obviously injured, but still hoping to put distance between itself and its tormentor.

I could not abide this casual cruelty and roared the name of the cat ("Captain") with as much volume as I could muster. The feline regarded me sullenly, and, as I made a rapid approach, slunk reluctantly away. The chipmunk had clambered upon the crossbar of a nearby picnic table, and when I extended my arm to it, readily accepted the proffered avenue of escape. Bewildered and traumatized, the chipmunk seemed not to consider me a source of peril. I started back toward our yard with the chipmunk, its sides heaving with exertions occasioned, no doubt, by the rush of adrenaline which it must have experienced, perched upon my palm.

At some point, it recovered from the shock of being cornered and rescued, gently nipped my thumb and scurried speedily up my arm, across my shoulder and up my scalp. I can only imagine the spectacle that I must have presented, striding through my front yard with a chipmunk riding on top of my head.

When I reached our picnic table, I bent over it, and the chipmunk wasted no time in traveling from my pate to the tabletop, down the legs and into the nearest available covert. I was pleased that I had been able to prevent a possible tragedy, and expected that this episode would be the last I would see of the tiny creature.

Sometime later that summer, I was sitting upon our front steps watching the squirrels, chipmunks and variety of birds devour the seeds and nuts that we had scattered upon the ground (call me Onan) when the neighbor opposite fired up a lawn mower. The animals and birds immediately took flight, as expected, but I was astonished to see one chipmunk streak directly toward me, leap up the steps, and cower behind my back. I turned around and we regarded each other for a long moment. I was aware of no communication, but there was an understanding reached between us that day.

I do not know if I ever met that particular individual again, but I possess a most marvelous memory that I will treasure forever. And why, you may ask, would I like to be a chipmunk? Because I love the racing stripes!




sistercdr said...

I love your affection small rodents and yuour observations of them.

fitzzer said...

I so enjoyed this entry. I've always loved mice (& chipmunks) and it was very interesting to get to know more about them. My Gram used to call me Lori Mouse no wonder.

judithheartsong said...

fantastic entry!!!!!! Big smile from here. judi

mutualaide said...

Great entry!  And a great memory too.

lamove04 said...

If there is one Artsy Essay Contest you are destined to win, it's this one, Malcom!  Excellent!!!    :-) Albert  

ps: I detect a slight prejudice towards our furry feline friends... but I'll overlook it this once.

sunnyside46 said...

this is a great story!
I am scared to death of rodents, I canhandle snakes, bugs, allthe othere things that give people creeps, but that is my phobia.
How many mice do you have?
I like squirrels and chipmunks, though

bedazzzled1 said...

I sure learned an awful lot about mice from your writing. They are intriguing creatures, aren't they? Your chipmunk rescue and ensuing meeting later was wonderful to read about. Nice!