Since starting this blog a few years ago, I've avoided telling stories from my personal life. That's because not much happens worth writing about. I suspect many find the writing here pretentious and wind-baggy enough as it is. I don't need to bore you all to death with tedious tales from my French vanilla life.
However, I'm going to break my rule this one time, if for no other reason than it's a story presenting a dilemma I was unable to resolve. It's a lesson learned from failure. As for the worry of writing about people I work with, well, this is a story reflecting poorly on me, and I won’t name any names. And as will become clear, I’m the doofus here, not them.
But first some background: I work in a historic building in downtown Paris, France. Like most old buildings here, this one has some mice. When winter comes, mouse sightings in the building go way up. Since mice are considered pests, it's standard practice to set out glue traps. I did not know this until I overheard my co-workers talking about how one of the traps had caught a live mouse.
What did they do with it, I asked? Well, they just opened the window and set the glue trap, along with the still squirming mouse, outside on the window ledge. This happened on Friday. It was now Monday of the next week.
I asked them to show me. Perhaps the little fella was still alive. They took me to the window ledge in question. Nope, it lay stuck fast to the trap, and was very much dead.
My colleagues thought it was hilarious. To me? Not so much. In fact, they found it kind of funny that I was bothered by a dead mouse.
"Come on! Is a grown-ass man upset about a dead mouse? Pathetic!"
You see, I'm a vegan, and have been for years. I do it for ethical reasons. So, no, I didn't like it.
Nope, not at all.
After that, I rolled up my sleeves and set about to do something about it. The first thing I did was remove all the glue traps and throw them in the trash.
I would show my colleagues a better, more humane way to deal with our mouse problem! I wanted to be an example of another way, and one not ending with the death of a living creature.
I went online and bought a couple of humane mousetraps, paying for them out of pocket. They arrived about two weeks later, and I set them up around the office where the rodent sightings were most frequent.
Okay, enough background.
Now, the fiasco.
First, the mice dunked on me, not once, but three times. They ate the food I left without springing the trap's door. I was a bit like Wile E. Coyote during those first few days, coming into the office each morning to check on my ACME traps only to find that the mice had outwitted me by eating the food without springing the trap. Of course, this was amusing to my office mates, my noble intentions thwarted by the same rodents I was trying to help.
Then I tragically scored an own goal. This part pains me to write.
So I went on checking the traps daily for about a month. Other than those few times when the mice ate and escaped unscathed, nothing happened. Time passed, my attention moved on, and I stopped checking every day. The fall break at school sent many in my office on a bit of leave. The guy next door took a week of vacation followed by a week of official travel, leaving his office empty for two weeks.
Did I mention I left one of my traps in his office? After he returned, he walked into my office holding the cage. "Well, your trap caught a mouse," he said, smirking.
Yep, it sure had, but the mouse starved to death because I forgot to check on the traps every day.
Not much happened over the next few months. The mice, perhaps chastened by their mate's grisly death from starvation, now avoided the traps. Nothing worked. I moved them around the office and switched to some more mouse-friendly bait. I checked the traps every day now, as I should have before, but they weren't getting fooled again. I'm convinced they now sensed in some rodent sort of way the danger lurking near those tempting morsels. They kept the hell away.
Meanwhile, mouse sightings continued to increase, many in broad daylight. The grumbling over my lack of results grew louder.
My boss mentioned that he saw mice scamper across the carpet in his office three times in the last week. He said my traps were all fine and good, and he admired my "kind heart," but come on, they weren't working. More lethal methods must be applied. I demurred. He let it drop for the moment, but I knew where this was heading. My efforts might be admirable, but wouldn't be tolerated indefinitely.
Another co-worker scoffed that I was virtue signaling. I didn't want to catch any mice, he quipped, but ostentatiously to show everyone my superior virtue. That's the real reason I used inefficient traps that didn't catch anything instead of lethal ones. It was all a performance on my part.
I disagree, but I understand how it looks that way, given the course of events so far. The sad fact is I hadn't war-gamed this out very well. Looking back, one might conclude my talent for forward planning had come from Southpark's Underpants Gnomes.
Really, though, what's the difference between them and me?
Behold my genius plan!
Phase 1. Catch the mouse
Phase 2. ?????????
Phase 3. Success!
OK, say I catch one, what am I going to do with it? As far as I know, France or anywhere else in the world have mouse sanctuaries. So do I let it go? Where? Do I take it out to the crowded park across the street and let it go in the dead of winter? It would likely die of exposure, just like the one on the glue trap that spurred me into action in the first place. Do I take it to another part of the building and let it go, knowing it'll probably make its way back to the office?
I guess by doing so, I could claim victory by spinning the tale that the traps had worked and no life was lost. Victory! I had solved our mouse problem! But, come on, that would be a lie! I couldn't resolve this crucial issue: once I caught a mouse, I also became responsible for it. Then what?
Unfortunately, I didn't have a viable way to handle the responsibility in a way that helped me achieve my goal of getting rid of the mice without hurting them. I wanted to show everyone that killing wasn't the only option, but I failed to demonstrate how that might work in practice.
What a dumbass!
Then came the weekly staff meeting and the revolt. I should have seen it coming. Patience finally ran out. Several people mentioned all the mice they had seen. The boss too. Someone asked if he could have permission to apply his own methods to resolve the mice infestation. Or, as he put it, "to catch the mouse and let it die of natural causes [on the window ledge] through unnatural means [the glue trap].” Hardy har har! In some pique of frustration, he claimed "The glue traps worked before! What Chief (me) is doing now isn't." The boss nodded solemnly and replied, "Yes, you have my permission to take whatever means necessary to solve this problem. Go ahead, enough is enough."
Snickering and giggles erupted in the room as I became the butt of the joke.
But what did I expect after this virtuoso performance?
So that's where I'm at now. My approach was well-intentioned but not well-thought-out. My botched execution has me back to square one, with the caveat: I now look like a bleeding-heart idiot. The glue traps are coming back, and I can't do a lot about it. I can offer no non-lethal alternative. I had my chance and bungled it. My credibility here is nil.
That's the trap I let myself fall into. I ended up feeding a stereotype people have of vegans as naive do-gooders. I did nothing to change this stereotype. No, in fact, I may have reinforced it.
Unlike other vegans, I haven't faced much overt hostility over the years. That said, mild contempt and subtle ridicule often lurk right below the surface when I tell people why I believe what I believe. People will put up with my ethical quirks, as long as I'm not too open about them and as long as they don't become inconvenient. If I try to practice what I preach and show what it means not to kill any living creature, not even a mouse, then the contempt and ridicule bubble back up to the surface.
When you’re the only one in a group who thinks something is wrong, and you say so, the group will kill you with humor, making any brave moral stand little more than a punchline. Once that’s the case, you’re done changing minds.
When everything’s a joke, nothing is taken seriously. It's odd to say, but humor can be one of the greatest behavior compliance tools in a society's arsenal. If you've ever held a minority and unpopular view on something, you understand what I'm talking about. Those folks must navigate the treacherous terrain between standing up for what they believe in and enduring the genuine risk of being laughed at.
In another article last year, I wrote the best way to open minds was to live a quiet example. I called it passive proselytizing, letting a lived example make the case for me. Over time, this normalizes and humanizes a behavior or lifestyle and so makes it harder to ridicule. If I may channel a little Yogi Berra, it's hard to hate someone when you like them. But in this case, my example backfired on me spectacularly.
So, what do I do in this case?
Nothing, that's what.
I'll pull my traps since I have no realistic options for getting rid of a mouse if I catch one. I must at least be honest about that. At the same time, I will do nothing to help my co-workers catch mice on their own. I won’t do it. That's the best I can do for now.
I'll learn from my mistakes and do better next time. In the meantime, I hope the mice are as clever with those glue traps as they were with my cages.
I'm rooting for the little bastards.