“Oh, no,” I whisper and stare at the long brown shape afloat in our water barrel, its black-tipped tail stretched out and legs hanging in limp surrender. I feel strangely bereft. Unwittingly, I’ve killed an ermine, our ally in the war we’ve started to wage on mice.
The small grey shapes seem to be everywhere these days, climbing up the outside walls of our cabin without the slightest effort and partying all through the night in our roof insulation. Lately, they’ve taken to racing through the roof even in the daytime, causing sage predictions from Sam that it’ll be an early winter. Maybe it’s just the incessant rain that drives them into our cabin and leads to rodent revelry; whatever it is, it has turned our usual half-hearted mouse trapping into serious combat. And now we’re short a member of our team.
I take a couple of sticks and remove the ermine from the water barrel, berating myself for not having put a lid on it, for having it sit too closely to the raised garden beds that made it possible for the ermine to get to the top of the barrel in the first place, and for not having had the foresight that this could happen. Whatever I lacked in imagination before kicks in now, belatedly: an unwelcome image of the weasel swimming and clawing at the steep plastic walls in increasing desperation, trying to keep its head above water, trying to get out.
“I’m so sorry,” I apologize and wonder for a moment what to do with the furry corpse. In the end, I throw the drowned ermine into the woods he knew so well. Despite feeling guilty for this death, I don’t harbour all that many illusions about weasels – an ermine once got into our chicken coop. It had been a nightmare, opening the door to the blood-smeared scene of destruction and having to put out of their misery the couple of hens that were still breathing but incapable of moving. It certainly didn’t endear ermines to me, yet who can blame a wild animal for following its instinct?
It was me who built the coop shoddily enough to allow a weasel to get in, it was me who locked the chickens inside. They had no way of escaping. It’s always easier to blame wild animals for going after livestock than face the fact that we’re enticing them to do so.
As far as mouse control is concerned though, weasels are on our side. I walk over to the wading pool that serves the chickens as an outside waterer over the summer and which has turned into a mouse trap. Indeed: two deer mice float in it again, not unlike their nemesis in the water barrel. I don’t like these slow deaths, perhaps they hit too close to home – tip a canoe out there in rough weather and joining the ranks of drowned mice and ermines will go rather fast. Nonetheless, I don’t set up a different waterer for the chickens. Double standards, but the trusty mouse traps can’t keep up with what’s swarming all over the chicken coop and our cabin.
Back at the cabin, Sam greets me with another message of doom. “I just found a spot where the mice have chewed their way through the ceiling,” he says and points up into the air. I crane my neck. There it is, a hole that opens directly into our living room. The constant nibbling we’ve been hearing at night is explained at last. Have mice been plummeting into the cabin from up there like an army of four-legged paratroopers? And if so, for how long? Glumly, I think of the mouse droppings on the kitchen counter the other day.
“This is getting ridiculous. Let’s put up a bucket trap.” I’ve been vetoing it for all these years, arguing that we as humans ought to be smart enough to control mice with traps that kill instantly, without preceding death by unnecessary suffering. Maybe we’ve been too slack this summer, maybe there are more mice. Either way, the situation calls for more effective measures and after all, I haven’t done anything about the wading pool. Plus, we’ve lost one ermine. “Just make sure something bigger doesn’t drown in there.”
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.