The noise from behind the couch startled all of us, cutting off our conversation in mid-sentence. Stacey, my wife, looked over at me.
“Sounds like we caught our mouse,” she said.
As I got up to investigate, Stacey explained to our houseguests, Julie and Trevor: We’d spotted a mouse darting behind our living room furniture a few weeks earlier. He’d probably squeezed his way into our home to get out of the freezing temperatures outside.
I stooped and pulled out the spring-loaded mousetrap from behind the couch. We had caught our quarry, all right. The trap had sprung right in the middle of his fuzzy gray back, not killing him but probably crushing his spine.
His nose twitched in terror. His tiny, round, black eyes peered up at me.
Please, he pleaded silently, why don’t my legs work anymore?
Stacey glanced at me in sympathy. The mousetraps had been her idea, of course. She knows I have an alarmingly high tolerance for some kinds of vermin; over the years, she’s watched me usher hundreds of spiders outside to avoid squishing them. She knows if I personally had to hunt, kill, and butcher our family’s food, we’d eat a whole lot more tofu.
I also knew she’d been right to set the traps. We had two little boys still in diapers scooting around our house; our curious two-year-old grabbed everything he could get his hands on, while our 7-month-old would put anything he found into his mouth. I couldn’t risk the health hazards of them finding mouse droppings somewhere — or, worse, of them somehow encountering a mouse and getting bitten.
So now I held in my hands a shivering, probably fatally injured, obviously suffering mouse.
Trevor made the best suggestion: Simply lift up the trap’s spring again and let it snap back down. He was right, that probably would have severed the mouse’s spine and put him out of his misery. But the mouse was so alert that I was afraid he’d try to get away. I imagined the paraplegic mouse slipping out of the trap as I re-sprung it, using his two good legs to drag himself back under the couch to die.
But I couldn’t hold him in place on the trap while I re-sprung it, either. In his terror, I thought he might try to bite me — and I could only imagine the diseases he might be carrying.
Or I could give his head a quick twist or otherwise try to snap his neck, the way lab technicians kill their mice. But, again, there were those disease-carrying teeth.
“Why don’t you get a hammer?” Trevor offered. Just a quick pop on the head would surely have dispatched him. Still — crushing his skull with a hammer? There had to be a more humane way. There had to be. Right?
The four of us debated for a few more minutes. Trevor offered to get the hammer and perform the execution himself. But I couldn’t ask that of a houseguest.
I went downstairs to get a hammer from my workshop and took the mouse outside.
The night air was clear and freezing. An inch-thick layer of ice covered our backyard picnic table. I set down the room-temperature hammer, which quickly melted its outline into the icy tabletop. Evidence.
After one last glance at those pleading eyes, I stuffed the mouse into a plastic grocery bag. I envisioned the mouse’s head splattering like a cherry tomato under the hammer’s blow; if I was really going to go through with this, I would have to contain the mess.
The opaque bag made it hard to find the mouse, though. I felt around: There was the trap’s rectangular wooden base, there was … something soft and warm. His back. I moved my fingers gently over the form, searching for his head. My thumb found the small of his neck.
His pulse. I felt his pulse.
I sighed, set the mouse down, and walked a few steps away to stare up at the stars. The pulse didn’t change anything. The mouse had to die. I had to kill it. I would just have to try to make it as painless as possible.
I picked up the bag again, found the mouse’s back, and set him upside down on the tabletop ice — hoping the cold would numb him against my blow. I contemplated killing him with a single hit with the claw of the hammer, thinking if I could just sever his spinal cord at his neck — even if that meant his head popping off — it would be less painful than squashing his skull into thousands of pieces.
Thinking again of the mess, I retreated back into the house for a second bag. I sealed the first one inside it and placed the mouse against the ice again. His pulse was getting slower.
It took minutes more for me to gather my nerve. I lifted the hammer. I picked up the mouse and felt for his neck.
Hypothermia, maybe. Or asphyxiation, from being stuck in that plastic bag. Or maybe it was internal bleeding and massive internal injuries from having his back and abdomen crushed under pounds of pressure — and he’d died slowly and in agony because I was too much of a coward to finish him quickly.
His casket was a navy blue, 32-gallon garbage can; his remains nestled on top of other plastic bags filled with tissues and food scrapings and dirty diapers. I closed the lid, looked up at the stars, tried to pray — and walked back to the house.