Mouse in my pants: a science center story

So, hey, when was the last time I told you folks an anecdote from my life? I’ve been talking about Serpents of Sky and other book-centric stuff for quite a while now. Yeah, let’s have a science center story.

To recap: when I was a teenager, I volunteered at the local science center. I was stationed in the live animal section — so I sometimes did cool things like handle snakes and give spontaneous educational speeches, and I mostly did less cool things like scrub animal habitats.

One of those animal habitats contained a deer mouse.

800px-Captive-White-Footed-Mouse

“Deer mouse” is a generic term for many different mouse species, but I’m fairly sure he was a white-footed mouse (Peromyscus leucopus). I don’t remember what the signage said: I was busy studying the animals that visitors handled on a regular basis, like the snakes and flying squirrels. Regardless of his scientific classification, this particular deer mouse was a tiny thing, about 3 inches long and weighing less than an ounce (7 1/2 centimeters and less than 30 grams). Despite his delicate size, he was a willful creature who did not like to be handled.

One day, I was working with a fellow teenage volunteer named Eric. We were tasked with cleaning the deer mouse’s enclosure: just put the animal in a bucket for safe keeping, scrub all the hard surfaces, change the bedding, and put the animal back in. Sounds simple enough. Armed with buckets and supplies, Eric and I went out onto the science center floor and opened up the lid of the big triangular plexiglass box that was the deer mouse enclosure. We were wearing lab coats so that probably made us experts!

Now, we had a net to catch the mouse with. One of those fine-meshed green nets you’d use to scoop up a goldfish from an aquarium. But the deer mouse didn’t appreciate being woken up and he was having none of this grabbed-by-humans nonsense. He evaded the net, and evaded our attempts to seize him by the tail. And then the deer mouse darted up Eric’s arm and out onto the floor — to bounce away across the wide open carpet. In the public area of the science center, where tourists wandered around by the dozens.

Oh geez oh my god grab more buckets and nets and another teenage volunteer, we have to catch this thing before it escapes into a crevice or gets stepped on! So we — this gaggle of three lab-coat-wearing kids — chased that deer mouse behind displays and under equipment. I imagine Yakety Sax would have made an appropriate soundtrack.

Eventually, we cornered the deer mouse in a dark, curtained-off alcove. The deer mouse hunkered in a corner with nowhere to go. I positioned my foot beside him so that he only had one direction left to run: into Eric’s bucket. Well, actually, the deer mouse’s other option at that moment was to run up my pant leg. So that’s what he did. Ran up my pant leg.

Did I mention that our science center deer mouse was known to bite when agitated?

So, yes, I had this biting-prone small animal jamming itself higher and higher in my khakis. While I was surrounded by science center visitors I couldn’t just drop my pants in front of, and also two male coworkers.

“Excuse me a minute,” I said. And I calmly walked back into the staff-only area, with a tiny lump of a time bomb creeping up my thigh.

I’m a little sketchy on what the more experienced staff were doing during this ridiculous slip-up. But thankfully the department supervisor that day was female, making it marginally less uncomfortable to undress so she could grab the deer mouse. I didn’t get bitten in any sensitive areas — and to be really optimistic about it, deer mice are known for their personal cleanliness so really, there are worse animals I could have had inside my clothes.

As my supervisor and I exited the back room with the deer mouse safely contained in a bucket, Eric came around the corner asking why I just left like that.

The entire mousecapade is one of those events that my writer’s brain wants to attach some meaning to. Is there a lesson to be learned here, other than not underestimating rodents? (No, really, mice and rats have pretty incredible capabilities.) Should I learn from my own example? In the 15-ish years since that happened, I don’t think I’ve ever handled any crisis as gracefully as I handled walking to the staff area with a mouse in my pants. (My supervisor did make sure to praise me for that part.)

Maybe this is just an example of  life’s great capability for chaos, and the human ability to make stories out of chaos. Even the weirdest nonsense gives us chances to laugh, learn and share a narrative. And I can offhandedly describe things as “less scary than having a mouse in my pants”, which is a fun mental image to throw into a conversation. I’ll call that a win!

Related articles:

The Western view of snakes, and how I changed it in my spare time (heidicvlach.com)

Hanging out with a porcupine (heidicvlach.com)

Psychology at tableside: what waiting tables taught me about people (heidicvlach.com)


Hanging out with a porcupine

I’ve talked before about volunteering at the local science center when I was a teenager (in my post The Western view of snakes, and how I changed it in my spare time). Well, here’s another anecdote!

When I was a teenage volunteer, the science center had a North American porcupine. One of these guys:

800px-Tree_Climbing_Porcupines

North American porcupines are solitary, nocturnal herbivores. They’ll often climb a tree and not come down until they’ve eaten all the bark off it. And even when they’re not stationary lumps in trees, they’re slow-moving and they keep to themselves. Even in Canada, where North American porcupines are native wildlife, people don’t seem overly aware of these animals unless they live in a remote rural area. You get an occasional cartoon-animal joke about how dangerous it is to touch a porcupine, and that’s about it.

Because of this lack of contact, many people still believe the old myth that porcupines can shoot their quills like arrows. Which doesn’t make any rational sense at all, but I guess it’s just one of those things we humans tell each other and keep believing simply because someone else told it to us. At the science center, adults would often bring their children over to Ralph’s enclosure — which was just a thigh-high wall, open on top — and tell the child, “Be careful, he might shoot quills at you!”

I, the labcoat-wearing pseudoscientist teen, would often drop into the conversation at this point. I’d explain that actually, Ralph’s quills are just loosely attached and don’t have any kind of firing mechanism. You’ll only get jabbed if you grab at the porcupine, or scare him into swinging his tail at you. Dogs that get a face full of porcupine quills? Yeah, they’ve actually attempted to bite the porcupine, that’s why. Those quills are an oft-misunderstood defense, not some menacing form of attack, which is a good lesson to learn.

zooan_northamericanporcupine_687w

Reaping what you sow, and whatnot.

Actually, despite those barbed quills that embed easily in flesh, it was quite possible to pet Ralph. The porcupine’s quills point backward just like its fur and are mostly on the porcupine’s hindquarters, so as long as people were careful they could pet Ralph just like petting a big old housecat. Being around humans for so long, he had taken a liking to attention that’s not typical for a solitary animal. He had a big, flat-topped rock as part of his enclosure wall, and when he was feeling sociable he’d sit on that rock where people could reach him. I and the other labcoated staff would come over and show people how to safely pet him. One time, I was showing a middle-aged woman how to pet Ralph and he suddenly decided he liked this lady, and tried to climb into her arms. Which was pretty alarming since he weighed over 30 pounds/13.6 kilograms! Neither of us had the strength to lift an animal that big, particularly one covered in quills, and of course Ralph himself didn’t see the big deal. None of the other staff happened by because that would be far too convenient. It took a few tense minutes of prodding to get Ralph balanced back onto his rock, and he quickly forgot what he was trying to do and wandered back down into his main enclosure.

That was the biggest, most ambitious move I ever saw Ralph make. Other than that, he was very relaxed and set in his ways, accustomed to the noise and bustle of tourists around him. The analogy of a big old housecat always stuck in my mind. Sometimes I got the task of turning the mulch in his enclosure and giving him his daily dinner of assorted fruits and vegetables. While I was in there, Ralph would brush against my leg — exactly like a friendly cat does. Just … much slower. Pretty cute for an animal associated with danger and cheap jokes.

It’s just one of those life experiences I occasionally remember and think, “Huh. That was cool. I was really lucky to be a part of that.” I moved on, and the science center got another rescued porcupette after Ralph died. But I’m glad I got to meet Ralph and introduce him to strangers.


The Western view of snakes, and how I changed it in my spare time

I’ve never found a definitive answer as to why so many Western folks hate and fear snakes. We still use the rod of Asclepius symbol, where the snakes represent regeneration and healing. And yet snakes are still strongly associated with deception and nastiness, so that calling someone a snake is a pretty serious accusation. And if you mention finding a snake in your yard, most people find it a horrifying idea.

Christian symbolism, maybe? That seems like a factor, but I’m not sure it explains the average person’s strong reaction at the thought of a pet snake. The most likely reason is that some snakes are venomous, and all of them are weird-looking compared to us mammals. So it’s become unconscious folklore that all snakes are dangerous monsters — even in places like Canada that have far more harmless snakes than dangerous ones. My mom told me that when her father saw a snake near the house, he would immediately get a shovel and kill it — and my grandfather liked animals, to the best of my knowledge. Just not that kind of animal.

But I was raised with no such snake prejudice. I occasionally saw garter snakes in the forest, and I learned to appreciate this opportunity to see a neat animal, but to keep my distance and be respectful. No big deal.

Then, at age thirteen, I started volunteering at the local science center. I must have used up my lottery-winning quotient for the rest of my life, because I was assigned to the biology section and all its northern Ontarian animals. My work — unpaid work, just so we’re clear — was mostly awesome, glamorous stuff like cleaning mouse cages. But if a visitor asked to see an animal, I was authorized to take certain critters out of their habitats and give a spontaneous presentation. My animals were the painted turtles, snapping turtles, flying squirrels and of course, some snakes! The black rat snake was my favourite.

The science center’s black rat snake was nearly 6 feet/2 meters long, and a deep, glossy black. Gorgeous animal. But the milk snakes were a more common request, I guess because they’re smaller and less intimidating.

It was usually children who asked me to take a snake out for them. Kids love animals. Especially cool, scary animals. Their parents typically looked uneasy at the thought of taking a snake out of its locked enclosure — maybe thinking of a time their own fathers grabbed shovels. But if some teenage girl in an Authoritative Lab Coat says she’ll show you how to pet a snake, well, how dangerous could it be?
So I, the teenage pseudoscientist, would enter a mysterious door and reemerge with a snake in my bare hands. The science center snakes had been handled for years and they were used to it — in fact, they had learned to appreciate the heat of human bodies. They’d leisurely climb my forearms, or else just curl up in my hands.

And the kids remained excited, petting the smooth scales. I’d start talking about snake trivia, including where some negative stereotypes came from. Milk snakes, for example, got their name because farmers would blame snakes when their cows’ milk dried up. Clearly, evil snakes were latching onto cows’ udders in the night and drinking all the milk! But the snakes actually came to farms to eat mice. While I talked, the kids’ parents would warily come closer and touch the snake, too, just with a fingertip at first.

They found find that snakes aren’t slimy or worm-like at all. The scales are smooth, and the whole animal feels firm and muscular. And their kids were enjoying the experience. And I had just pointed out that snakes are, if anything, helpful to human civilization. The family would thank me for taking out the animal for them, and they’d leave, with the adults usually wearing a surprised little smile. They had just changed their worldview by a significant fraction.

And that was why I liked the volunteer job so much. I got to handle some animals that are usually only seen in the wild around here, and it was surprisingly easy to open people’s minds with these animals. Adult people who had already formed opinion bases. There’s more than one way to see a crawling reptile and I was able to prove that over and over, for random strangers. It was well worth my time.