Today was one of those days that tend to put things in perspective and reveal something deeper. I was still feeling a little under the weather following a heavy cold had laid me up under the duvet for two days and so instead of my usual full Sunday morning survey I decided instead to embark upon just a simple visit to replace the video card in my long running Trail Cam experiment.
I fought my way through the undergrowth that shows no sign of abating as autumn draws on and reached the camera, as I struggled to find the key to unchain it I was distracted by movement in the leaf litter. I was surprised to find a mouse. I had obviously surprised it on my approach but unusually it had not fled, instead it lay on its side. I bent down to examine it and noticed that one eye was screwed up and the legs on one side flailed frantically.
It was clear the mouse, a large Wood Mouse by the looks of it, was unwell. If you can approach an animal especially a mammal then it is usually very sick. Carefully I used a twig to turn the mouse over to reveal that the mouse seemed paralysed. Only the limbs on the left side seemed to be working. It gasped with an audible wheeze with slow deep breaths.
Another sign of impending mortality was the number of flies which seemed to be present. It was a warm sunny morning but the flies were circling for other reasons and alighted on the mouse in anticipation as if they could sense the mouse’s clock had run down and that here was the offer of one last egg laying bonanza at the end of the year.
Sentimentality got the better of me and a sat myself down beside the dying mouse and gentled stroked the fine fur on its back and kept the flies at bay. Did this soothe the mouse or terrify it more, I don’t know but at that moment it seemed more important that the mouse did not die alone. We are species apart; our understanding of our respective worlds was infinitely at odds but it seemed the right thing to do. The mouse’s breathing continued in deep gasps and then stopped. There was no tailing off, no shudder, no whimper or sigh... just nothing. The indescribable glint of agency in the eye had fled.
All ecologists and natural historians must face the death of the wildlife they study. I have been called to rescue injured animals many times and some of those failed to survive. I have encountered recently dead animals and admired the beauty of their form and figure and I have watched the cycles of nature take place as predator despatches prey, but this was different. I was there at the end and I was unsure of the cause.
The mouse was perhaps 12cm long not including the tail and the body was unmarked. It wasn’t thin or malnourished. It struck me then to banish my growing sadness over the small creatures passing. There was nothing I could have done to rescue or save it and it had died a natural death. This was an animal that had successfully completed the game of life. Mice have a short life span rarely surviving past the winter and rarely longer than 12 months. This mouse, if a female, could have been pregnant up to six times in its short live and produced between four and seven pups in each litter; and if male then it could have sired many litters. Instead of mourning its loss perhaps it was better to celebrate its short but potentially successful life.