Between a Mouse and a Green Place

A pacifist plant-lover faces off a hungry horde

By Mala Kumar Published May 6, 2024 14:40:22 IST
Between a Mouse and a Green Place illustration By Siddhant Jumde

The day I noticed a few brain-shaped leaves of my Indian pennywort were missing was the day I should have known that we had a little robber around us. And a clever one, at that. Some Indian homes fry pennywort leaves in ghee for children to eat for enhanced intellect and memory power. Over the next two days, more glossy round leaves from a plant known for its anxiety-relieving properties, disappeared. Not having had enough of either, my brain did not send out alarm bells.

The next day, my Jewels of Opar (Talinum paniculatum) had been tonsured. This one was particularly precious to me because it had come from the garden of a family I loved. Nevertheless, I did not panic. Just a month ago, a passing troop of monkeys had settled down on the ledge of our fourth-floor balcony, slipped their hands through the bars and helped themselves liberally to the leaves.

The plant eventually corrected itself, and I was looking forward to the familiar burst of pretty pink flowers on it. Ah, the monkeys must be back, I thought now, appreciating their taste in flora. They could not do much damage, I assumed, as they would be on their way in a day or two. Live and let live is a policy close to my heart.

Soon though, the leaves of my amaranth, tomato and brinjal plants started disappearing too. Had someone in the family become a closet leaf-eater? I wondered. I’m quite proud of the wildlife in our balconies and even did a course about it once. Squirrels, bulbuls and tailorbirds visit us regularly, but during the day, and they do not eat leaves. The resident geckos are harmless too. And then one day, I saw telltale footprints and droppings. Why did a mouse (or mice) feel the need to come up to our balcony when they could have a feast in the apartment’s grounds? Word spread. Other neighbours on the top floors also reported sightings. And soon we learnt why.

The compost pit in the common area had begun to attract rodents. An overeager pest-control professional sprayed not just the burrows and the compost pit with repellents, but also the entire garden. With no place to escape, the mice must have started climbing up into our balconies through the rainwater pipes.

I think rodents are cute. I’m not ashamed to confess that I can watch Ratatouille any number of times. Jerry, Stuart Little and Mickey Mouse are universally popular. In real life, however, rodents spell potential chaos and health hazards. So I faced a serious moral dilemma—how does a card-carrying ‘friend of the Earth’ and peace-lover balance her commitment to animal rights and sustainable living with safe, rodent-free homes?

I must admit though that when the lush vines of my prized money plant lay in tatters, murderous thoughts arose aplenty, but I held firm against the litany of poisons and repellent sprays that advertised swift termination, or evacuation, of the intruders. After all, what would drive the little looters off could also cause birds, bees and butterflies to hightail it out of my fully organic garden. Not to mention the little humans at home.

We kept our grandkids away from the balcony, until the four-year old overheard us talking about the mice and insisted on leaving a cup of water for them to drink. Mixed messages, sure, but hey, we’re pacifists! So what was the gentlest way to communicate our relocation request to the battle-hardened braves of the urban pest brigade? Also why was not choosing violence so stressful?

Suggestions poured in: “Stop growing edible plants.” Bad advice for an earnest and hopeful food-grower. “Grow more mint, basil, rosemary and lemongrass.” Great! More of these plants filled the balconies. The rodents had left the doddipatre (Indian borage) untouched, and so I propagated these with gusto, plonking cuttings into every available pot. “Don’t leave any food out in the open.” Our kitchen waste continued to go into the terracotta composter and the rest into a double-layered garbage can. Then one morning, I found a shredded biscuit wrapper outside the bin, which now sported a neatly carved, mouse-sized hole.

That’s it! Time for stronger action. We ordered an old-fashioned mouse-trap, the kind that encloses the culprit instead of dismembering it. The next morning, we awoke to a successful nabbing: a small mouse sat inside the wire cage, looking disappointingly unperturbed—smug even. It seemed to sneer at me with an expression that said, “So, kind lady, what’s the plan? Where will you set me free? Outside your door so I can sneak into a neighbour’s flat? Or outside the apartment complex? I’ve always wanted to visit that laundry shop’s dirty linen pile. Save me the walk, why don’t you?”

‘Kind (and annoyed) lady’ instead asked her recalcitrant domestic assistant to release the mouse close to a drain some distance away. (Sorry, city inspectors, sorry!)

One down, but how many to go? My dilemma deepened as more rodents got caught, one at a time. “Feed them to my cat,” suggested a neighbour. “No!” I protested, wondering why a cat-lover like me was ‘protecting’ a pest while simultaneously denying a feline her natural prey.

As the lemongrass dried out, and the monkeys ate up almost all the borage, I was counting on the mint to work their magic. It did, but not for me. Discovering new holes bored into three of my mint pots, I was overcome by visions of self-righteous mice with very fresh breath snickering at my helplessness.

It’s no laughing matter though. If the compost pit had been covered, maybe the rodents would have stayed out and not contaminated the compost. If the rodents could have continued in the garden, maybe they would not have had to come up. The many owls and kites in the huge old trees peppering the grounds would have ensured a healthy balance of species.

Meanwhile, however, I’m still waiting for a solution so that my assistant, who has been gingerly letting a mouse out of the trap every other day, doesn’t throw in the towel with which she has been sanitizing the balconies. Should I try neem oil?

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