By Clement Vincent
Recently I was astonished to see a bat flying up and down the hallway in front of my classroom. This startling episode was eclipsed, however, by another encounter with wildlife that occurred several days later, when I returned to my second-floor office to see a mouse dart out from under my desk and disappear behind my bookshelves.
The presence of wildlife on the campus should in some sense be unsurprising. Although my university is located in a major metropolitan area, the nearby creek attracts fauna, and I have encountered foxes, raccoons, and deer during my daily predawn walk from the faculty parking lot to my office. But those enjoyable encounters have all occurred outside — where they should. Both the bat and the mouse were infringing on my territory.
The bat issue was resolved efficiently when a faculty member from the environmental-science department deftly captured the bat with a sheet and released it outside. My mouse issue has not been so simple.
Unlike my environmental-science colleague, I have no training in the capture or care of live animals. As a philosophy professor with interests in ancient and medieval philosophy, my time is spent with old books and old languages. I notified our facilities director about the mouse sighting, and soon his department set four snap traps, baited with peanut butter, along the narrow hallway of the faculty offices. After a week, the peanut butter was gone, and the only thing the traps managed to catch was the toe of a faculty member from the business department.
The visible presence of the unsightly snap traps occasioned much discussion among faculty members. Some revealed that they had found evidence of mouse visits in their offices. Most internal doors in the building have a one-inch gap along the bottom, so a mouse can travel easily between offices looking for food. Candy, peanuts, and an apple that had been left out in various offices had been discovered by the wily mouse.
My three young children were thrilled at the idea of a mouse living in my office area. They named it "Philosophy Mouse" and were pleased to hear my daily report that the traps were not working. After talking with them, I purchased a catch-and-release mousetrap to set up in my office.
My wife, who is also a professor at my university, questioned whether I should be spending family money to resolve an issue for which the university was responsible. I told her that my $20 investment was simply a self-protective measure to free my office from wildlife. Wouldn’t most people pay that amount to have a mouse-free working environment?
I baited my new trap with oatmeal flakes and a piece of chocolate, only to discover the next day that the bait was missing and the trap had malfunctioned. Upon learning about this, my children cheered for the success of Philosophy Mouse, who had snatched the bait food and escaped.
The next morning there was no malfunction. Philosophy Mouse was in the trap, looking quite pleased to have finished off the oatmeal and the chocolate. I wondered where I should release this very alive mouse. After a brief deliberation, I selected a grassy area a few hundred yards outside the faculty office building. My work was done. Or so I thought.
In discussing the mouse situation with my family over dinner, we had wondered whether there might be more than one. Philosophy Mouse surely has friends, my children insisted. They decided that, should there be a second mouse, it would be named "Plagiarism Mouse." Subsequent mice, they insisted, should be named "Typo Mouse" and "Meeting Mouse." With their choice of names, our children disclosed indirectly how they conceived of their parents’ lives as professors. They clearly have overheard discussions we have had about the challenges of teaching, scholarship, and service.
The children were correct: The mouse problem was quickly confirmed to be a mice problem.
I established a routine of setting the trap as I left the campus each day and releasing the newly caught mouse the next morning. The mice varied in size, but each apparently had a strong desire for oatmeal and chocolate. After the capture of the fifth mouse, qualifying me as a mouse-catching "ace," my 7-year-old daughter announced that my office building should be renamed "Mousetopia." My 12-year old son added that the next mouse should be named "Time-To-Get-An-Exterminator Mouse."
Several colleagues — quite alarmed by the number of mice I was extracting — began to submit new requests to the facilities department for dealing with the onslaught. The response from the facilities department was always the same: We’ve set traps; we haven’t seen any mice, and so forth.
By accident I encountered the facilities director in the hallway on his way back from investigating a water leak. He seemed somewhat incredulous that I had caught any mice at all. With my cell phone I had taken photos of each mouse to show my children, but now those pictures documented the complete history of my wildlife adventure. He seemed impressed, but in a later email stated, "It is not an infestation and we have blocked all the entry points to the building."
I had not realized that there would be such skepticism about the presence of animals in the building. I discerned that it would be prudent to find observers to my catch-and-release practices. (Witnesses now include the university’s chaplain.) Two of my children were eager to participate, so one Friday I set the trap and returned with them on Saturday morning to release the day’s mouse. So far nothing has been so exciting to them regarding my work as a professor as producing a live animal in my office.
My $20 investment was turning out to be a good deal. When I captured my eighth mouse, I realized that each capture had cost less than $3. The facilities department has not captured any mice, and I was fast approaching double-digits.
My colleagues exhibited a range of reactions to the continuing affair. For some, the presence of mice was an amusing novelty; for others it generated much agitation. I recalled that during my first year at the university, the chair of the English department had told me that once a mouse crawled up on his desk and watched him while he was reading. He had found the situation delightful. Those faculty members less well-disposed to rodents suggested that I set up a meeting with HR to discuss the invasion, adding that bringing a captured live mouse would be a compelling visual aid.
A member of our housekeeping staff — who has worked at our university for over 30 years — mentioned to me at one point, "I don’t think that a professor of philosophy should have to be the one to catch the mice around here." This comment caused me to reflect further about the various roles one serves at our university.
Over the years I have seen debates about the perceived status of faculty members. I had a colleague who was furious that her university identification card and parking permit had "Faculty-Staff" printed across the top. She insisted she was not part of "staff" but held the rank of a faculty member. Another former colleague often complained that faculty members shouldn’t have to eat in a general area in the dining hall with everyone else. Still another insisted that faculty members should not have to perform such tasks as restocking paper in the photocopiers or making photocopies. I wonder what those former colleagues would think of me in my new mice-catching role.
Faculty members preoccupied with roles or status tend to be exceptions at my institution, however. The ethos here is to pitch in when there is work to be done. One colleague who was assigned a basement windowless office never complained; instead, she quietly repainted the main wall an exotic color one weekend to brighten up what had originally been a dreary space.
Last summer I was walking down the corridor of our main academic building and saw a large file cabinet slowly lumbering its way toward me on a handcart. Behind it was our academic vice president. If our academic VP can transport her heavy file cabinets, I can deal with the ongoing wild-animal problem in our building.
At the end of the academic year, I’ll list my newly published book on my annual faculty activity report under "scholarship." I’ll also list the total number of mice I have caught and released under "service to the university."
Clement Vincent is the pseudonym (used here because the last office you want to annoy is facilities management) of a philosophy professor at a university in the Midwest