The Tale of the Mouse and the Social Worker

Cologne Cathedral

I first saw the mouse scrambling across the well-worn stone plaza in the shadow of Cologne’s towering cathedral. The mouse flitted about, attracting the attention of a few who pointed and cooed with delight. This was no scruffy rat with a bald pink tail, nor was this a generic gray mouse radiating grime and pestilence. No, this was a wee little thing, with a bulbous round body the size of a thumbprint and a tail twice as long. I immediately became concerned for its safety; it couldn’t have chosen a more lethal location for adventuring. The Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom) is the most visited site in Germany. On average, it boasts some 20,000 visitors a day. This is not a good place to be, even if you are unarguably adorable, if you are also nearly microscopic and trying to dodge your way through thousands of pairs of feet.

Over the years, millions of pairs of shoes have worn the plaza in front of the cathedral down to the smooth and polished texture of river stones. As I watched the mouse scampering around, I could detect no obvious location from which it had come. It was tiny, and it was vulnerable. Though some people noticed the mouse, plenty more trundled to and fro, looking straight ahead. I shooed the mouse away from an oblivious bicyclist, and then literally shoved a man who was looking up at the beautiful blue October sky. He came close to treading on the mouse, but my shove and accompanying shout managed to divert his steps. Fortunately he was an animal lover and immediately apologized rather than immediately curse at me in German and shove me back. It was at this moment that I became convinced this mouse was in mortal danger and needed a rescue plan. I searched in vain for a clear and obvious place where the mouse could easily retreat. Finding none, I pleaded with my husband to search for a box or giant cup to use as a temporary transport vessel as I shepherded this insanely precious cotton ball-with-a-face to safety. The closest place was a nearby corner made by the convergence of a large cement planter and the edge of a shop.  I stood with my back facing the hoard of people flocking to the cathedral- keeping an eye on the mouse, who seemed quite content for the moment to preen in a location free of giant humans and their stampeding feet. It turned its dainty nose up at a discarded cigarette and preened its whiskers with its minute paws. The shop I faced was closed but in its windows were beautifully painted orbs made from an undetermined material. They were richly colored like planets and suspended from the ceiling with nearly invisible string. Several people approached, assuming I was admiring a famous art display and stood next to me, arms crossed, as if examining an abstract painting at a museum or gallery. One lady even tried to strike up a conversation, but I feigned total absorption in my art-gazing, merely nodding and agreeing that the probably-papier-mâché planets were indeed “sehr schön.” Dan appeared several moments later with a box containing a Köln Cathedral snow globe. We removed the snow globe from its styrofoam casket. We now had a nearly perfect empty box for transporting the mouse to safety. Now, not to brag, but I have a distinguished legacy of capturing and releasing animals. For example, I’m a pro at corralling spiders into cups with a piece of paper to trap it inside. I know I’m in the minority, but I believe killing spiders is bad luck.

Needless to say, I was able to get the mouse into the box with little issue. My plan was to drive to a patch of forest or park and let him go. Dan and I got into our car and contemplated various release spots.  I did my research and identified that the mouse I had caught was a harvest mouse. I further researched and determined  what its natural habitat was. But then, some 50 km outside Cologne, Dan and I made our first mistake: We gave the mouse a name and that name was Karl. As we drove, I had one excuse after another about why each potential release spot wasn’t right (too close to the interstate; not the right ratio of farmland to field…). We ended up bringing Karl home. We set his snow globe box inside a large plastic container and poked holes in its lid. I went to the store and bought grass bedding and mouse food, which was wheel-shaped, approximately the circumference of a plum, and made entirely out of different types of seeds. I went outside and gathered stalks of wheat and sticks and other things to give his home a more natural feeling. I brought him a little dish of water made from the empty top of a plastic water bottle. I laid out the seed wheel, along with bits of bread and tried different types of fruit and vegetables to see what he liked. Apples, I soon learned, were his favorite. Eventually, Karl overcame his shyness and started exploring his surroundings. He did this with the ferocity of a ricocheting bullet. He jumped and sniffed and tried to find any possible escape route. It was like watching a beautiful tiger at the zoo, who is pacing back and forth, with a primal understanding that it is not meant for a cage; it is meant for roaming wide expanses of jungle. I decided I couldn’t stand to watch this and if it continued, I would let Karl go immediately. The next day, it stopped. Karl adapted to his authentic-looking but artificial habitat. He ate his seed wheel and bits of apple. He excreted an amount of feces that I thought impossible for any creature of his size. I cleaned the paper-towel-lined snow globe box daily and re-filled his water “dish”. All the while, I continued to ponder whether I was doing the right thing by keeping Karl. Was I sheltering him and protecting him from the rapidly approaching winter, or was I trapping him in a container meant to hold legos or shoes, not a wild animal?

I kept Karl for exactly a week before deciding it was time to let him go.

The farmland and fields by our home, which are also Karl’s new home

I researched online where harvest mice like to live and where they go in the winter. Dan and I set out and found the perfect location: On the fringe of a brambly ditch with field and farm beyond, we found a pathway that’s hedged in on both sides by piles of felled grain and discarded mulch. Several meters up the pathway there was an empty space in a wall of rhubarb, wheat, corn stalks, and other unidentifiable, formerly-flora detritus. It had several layers of shelter, provided by the natural indention in the pile, as well as a layer of bramble above that, and finally, a tall tree towering above, with leaves dense enough to serve as a partial canopy for future rain and snow. I pulled out the reeds and grass from Karl’s box. I scattered extra grass throughout the space to make the area comfortable and to offer extra warmth and shelter. I left him his favorite food: the seed wheels. I also scattered the 5 remaining seed-rings that Karl hadn’t yet eaten, throughout the niche. I figured that, barring future intense and extremely abnormal food cravings, I had no use for the things.  I spent a while judging the likelihood of predators finding him, as well as the likelihood that his territory would be encroached upon by humans. Luckily, where we live, the only possible predators are mice-eating birds and possibly pine martens, the latter of which I’ve never seen. There are so many layers of coverage that it’s unlikely a bird would ever be able to snatch him up. The space looked like a well-established dumping ground for nearby farmers and was close enough to fields and farms that I wasn’t too worried about someone deciding to mow the area down and build a grocery store. Thoughtlessly discarded in the wall of forgotten grain, there was a blue plastic bucket. It was mostly filled with rain water and a layer of recently and not so recently shed leaves. I immediately became worried about it being a drowning hazard, so I wedged 4 or 5 sticks into the bucket, leaning them against the side of the bucket so that in the event that Karl attempted to get a drink of water and fell head first into an unexpected lake, he had easily accessible ladders to grab onto. I probably need not have bothered, for I’d already learned that Karl was a cunning and resourceful little mouse.

I finally steeled myself and opened up his container, inside of which was his old snow-globe box, where he was currently hiding. I tipped the box on its side and released Karl. I’m not sure what I was expecting at this moment: perhaps time would slow down and a soundtrack of violins would start up as my new friend hesitantly took a few steps forward while giving me a furtive, questioning glance. Ultimately, Karl is a mouse, so he vacated that box at top speed and with no fanfare, dashing into his new home. I watched him for a while, as he explored and moved bits of grass about and sniffed his seed wheels. Finally satisfied, Dan and I left. I got halfway home and turned back. When I first arrived back at the spot, he was nowhere to be seen, but soon he emerged, showing himself for a few seconds before ducking back into the hidden recesses of the wall of reeds and wheat. This is the point where I started to cry. How was this little mouse going to survive on its own? Clearly we are joined at the soul, as he showed himself, however briefly, to me when I returned. I decided I wasn’t ready to give up. I walked home and sliced up an apple, his favorite, dicing up 7 pieces small enough for Karl. Next, I left the apartment, jumped a fence and very likely trespassed on someone else’s property to retrieve a discarded clay flower pot from a pile of ancient, discarded things. I returned to the spot once more, with my newly acquired clay pot and apple slices wrapped in a paper towel in my coat pocket. I stuffed the flower pot with more grass, (we had so much of it left over that we threw it onto a stack of mulch) as well as the little square of paper towel and 7 mouse-sized pieces of apple. When I returned, Karl once again came out of hiding for a time and then dived back under the grass, like a dolphin slipping into the trough of a wave. I left the apples and the clay pot and this time walked home and stayed home. I returned the next day. All 7 pieces of apple remained tucked inside the flower pot, but the seed wheels were completely gone, pulled, I imagine, into a comfy little hole he’s made for himself under the thick layer of grass. I waited the length of time it took for 3 1/2 songs to play on my i-Phone for him to come scurrying out. When he didn’t, I walked away and then quickly dashed back to see if I’d fooled him. No such luck. This time, he was nowhere to be found. I had mixed feelings as I walked away. A cover to “Let My Love Open the Door” was blaring from my earbuds. I teared up once more. A big part of me was hoping that he’d appear, as he had on each of my previous visits. But I told myself he had pulled all his seed wheels into a reachable location underneath the surface of his new home and was comfortable and happy. I left the apple slices in the flower pot. I’m telling myself that I won’t go back every day to see if they’re a few nibbles smaller. It’s now been 3 days, and I haven’t returned.

Part of letting go means that it’s no longer up to me how Karl succeeds or fails to keep himself safe. He’s on his own now, far from Cologne, but nevertheless free. Does that mean I won’t go to the store and buy more seed wheels and occasionally drop a few into his hiding spot? Does it mean I won’t occasionally veer off my walking path towards Karl’s last-known dwelling to search for traces of mouse? I suppose I haven’t fully let go, but I have accepted that each time I return-if I return- it is unlikely I will see him again. I made that choice when I let him go; I made that choice when I realized that taking a wild thing and trying to tame it was not something, in the long run, I was willing to do.

It is no secret to myself or those who know me that I have a soft spot when it comes to rescuing animals, and people. In my career of attempting to save animals, I have had some obvious successes (much to the chagrin of my mother, in whose charge several of these animals currently reside). When it comes to people, it’s obviously trickier. I’m drawn toward all things cracked, broken, un-loved, hurting, lost, sad, and lonely. This is why I may try my hand at different careers throughout my life, but I will always carry the heart of a social worker. As a social worker, one often does not get to witness the success stories of our clients, or if we do, we often have to watch the decline following a success. I am aware that the rescue mission of this mouse was more than a simple mission to ensure an adorable mouse didn’t get squished under the soles of stampeding tourists. I was presented with an opportunity to have influence over the life of another, an influence which was measurable and observable and lasted for the length of time that I was able to adequately provide him care. Social workers often don’t get such opportunities. As individuals, we also rarely have such an opportunity to exercise control over our own lives. Recognizing that we are not always in control and must place trust in others, whether those others are supreme beings or human beings, can be difficult. Floating around in my brain is the notion that once I am able to fully accept and embrace that I cannot control whether or not the person that I voted for didn’t get elected to become the next president; or whether someone likes my writing; or whether people like my new haircut; or if others agree with my current favorite musical selection; or whether it stops raining for one freaking week so I can see the sun; or whether I am able to save a life, the closer I come to accepting that what matters most is caring, and trying, and being okay with life’s baseline: being. If success is my measuring stick, it’s an insufficient and unwieldy thing. Also, it’s arbitrary. But if love is what motivates me, and faith, in myself and others, is what sustains and grounds me, the next step is relinquishing the illusion of control, which is the only path that propels me towards acceptance. My earthly task is to decorate my tiny space in the world how I see fit (so obviously with lots of flowers and inspirational quotes and an automatic hug-giving machine), and to choose the music that goes with my life’s soundtrack, and to make sure my voice is heard, and to do everything I can to help ensure other people’s voices, especially those so often suppressed, are heard, too. That is all I can do. I can wish with all my might that Karl survives the winter, and maybe even one day meets other harvest mice, but this is a kind of truth or fiction that I will never see come to pass. I have to move on and let Karl move one. Luckily, this is one thing I do know how to help fix. After Dan and I return from Thanksgiving, we’re getting a cat. It’ll be a rescue, of course. It is unrealistic to expect that I will ever stop trying to help what I deem needs helping, but I have learned there’s an important boundary to draw. My influence stops when in casting my net wide in the ever-lasting quest to amass all the knowledge and wisdom I can, I manage to tangle up in those threads something interesting, something I can’t help but feel fortunate to have caught. Shiny and exciting as this thing may be, it was never meant for me. It was always meant to be free.

Image from Leo Lionni’s “Frederick”

2 thoughts on “The Tale of the Mouse and the Social Worker

  1. This was lovely and inspiring. I haven’t been smiling or experiencing the sensation of hope or optimism much these past few days. Thank you for bringing some of that back. -Doug


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