Dormouse in the House

Jun 23, 2014

Old houses in warm climates often serve as crash pads for birds, insects and other unauthorized creatures who make themselves very much at home without ever offering to share the mortgage payments. On the whole the human residents learn to live with their non-paying guests, but not always.

When we arrived in France this year it was clear that our tolerance was going to be tested. Some sort of wild all-night party was going on in the walls and roof of the house and we couldn’t sleep at all. It sounded as if a herd of elephants or teenagers were trapped in there, but our neighbors reassured us that it was probably only a family of European Dormice or Loirs.  This was not what we wanted to hear.

Everything I knew about dormice I had learned from reading Alice in Wonderland, where a dormouse played a major comic role in the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party scene. He slept most of the time, but occasionally woke up to express some philosophical conundrum such as:`You might just as well say,'  "I breathe when I sleep" is the same thing as "I sleep when I breathe"!' He also told an original story about two girls who lived in a treacle well, and lived on treacle while learning to draw. "They drew all manner of things--everything that begins with an M," said the dormouse, "Such as mouse-traps, and the moon, and memory, and muchness - you know you say things are ‘much of a muchness’ - did you ever see such a thing as a drawing of a muchness?" Then he fell asleep again.

You can see that this was an entertaining dormouse, so much so that he had to be suppressed by putting him in a teapot.

Now this kind of whimsical, ironical dormouse I could live with, and even learn to like, but ours told no jokes and proposed no riddles. They just scratched and squeaked. Reasoned arguments and threats of legal action didn’t disturb them, even in French.

The stories we read when we’re very young, and no doubts the movies we watch too, color our thoughts about the animal kingdom for a lifetime. The gentle cast of otters, moles, mice, squirrels, bears and ducks that populate the tales of childhood make it hard to think of the creatures in any other way. But we tried. We hardened our hearts against the dormice, reminding ourselves that the Romans used to eat them, marinated in honey, and that in any case they are just rats with cute faces and bushy tails.

My idea was to live trap the dormice and carry them off to the nearby woods where they wouldn’t disturb anybody. But our neighbors, who shared the wall and its menagerie, wanted nothing to do with live traps. An exterminator was called, and the dormice turned out to be rats – very large rats.

Rats don’t get such a good press. They are associated with sewers and diseases, with the Pied Piper of Hamelin, with the phrase “You dirty rat.” There are not many fine or heroic rats in fiction, but why not? I could cite Remy, the talented rat in the animated film Ratatouille, and the literary rat Firmin who lived in a bookstore and educated himself by eating the books.Also I had a pet white rat I was very fond of when I was a kid. Soon I began to feel as sorry for the rats as I had for the dormice.

But there was no stopping the exterminator and the rats have fallen silent. We can sleep peacefully all night, and I still feel terrible about it.

Copyright: David Bouchier