The Goddess, the Dead Mice and Me

Written By: Elsa Burt

On the list of Things I Never Thought I’d Do, cutting up refrigerated baby mice corpses with scissors was pretty close to the top… until that day. The goddess, who I’ll call “Diana,” got right to the point, “How would you feel about cutting up mice?” Here is where I should probably mention that I find Diana in all of her tattooed and pierced, wise-cracking, hippie-chick braided glory utterly magnificent, so while I’d like to think that I’m fearless and cool and totally un-squeamish when it comes to cutting up dead animals on a moment’s notice, I’m pretty sure that a large part of my agreeing to do it had to do with not looking like a total wuss in Diana’s eyes. But I should probably go back to the beginning.
April may have cruelest month all sewn up, but my money is on March for most depressing… especially in New York City. And this past year’s was no exception. The City was feeling dreary and mean and useless and so was I, when out of nowhere I received what I still consider one of the best emails ever. It was from the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center in Hampton Bays; I had been on their mailing list ever since I had taken an injured bird to them the year before, and the subject line read “NANNY CLASS: HELP SAVE THE BABIES! I mean what better call to action is there than that? What better reason to get off of your couch, which has by now molded to your body shape, stop watching 9-hour marathons of the LOTR trilogy, and put away all cheese-related foods than to go and help “FEED AND CARE FOR OUR WILDLIFE BABY FRIENDS!” And so I went to the training class at the beginning of April and started volunteering every Saturday morning at the only wildlife hospital in Eastern Long Island where they specialize in the rescue, rehabilitation and release of native wildlife.
The initial best thing was that I got to bore all of my friends, and even people I’d just met, with all kinds of really useful information. Such as, NEVER feed waterfowl (that means ducks) bread, think greens instead, like lettuce, kale, and dandelions or birdseed… also don’t EVER throw food out of your car onto the road, because when the small animals come out to eat it the birds of prey will swoop down onto them with such intense raptor-focus that they will not even see the car that is about to hit them. Also if you should come across a mother opossum that has been hit and killed on the road, take the time to check if she has any babies that might still be alive attached to her teats and, if so, bring the whole “assemblage” to someplace that can help. I also a learned a couple of helpful catch-phrases such as, “never feed a cold baby” (warm them up first, but don’t warm them up if they’re bleeding) and, my all time favorite, “a dirty bird is a dead bird” – which I’ve actually found to be useful in all kinds of even non-bird related situations.
So, first I got to learn lots of interesting stuff and share it with everyone, usually during meals, and then I got to start feeding the babies. Baby squirrels to start, then opossums and then endless neon-yellow-mouthed, forever-cheeping, gaping baby birds that have to be fed every 30 minutes, so that by the time you’ve finished them all you are ready to start again. And that’s what led, one relatively quiet Saturday morning, to the aforementioned, lovely vet tech “Diana” asking about cutting up the mice, because it was time to feed the two orphaned baby eastern screech owls.
In an attempt to stall for time, I asked, “So, uh, how do you actually do that?”
“Well, I like to cut off the head at the neck. Then I cut under the arms, so that they have that little piece, then a little further down, and, depending on the size, one more cut.”
Wow! Apparently there was more involved here than I thought. I was expecting maybe just one big slice up the middle, like, you know, when Ina Garten (another goddess) cuts the back-bone out of a chicken in order to cook it flat on the grill. I believe it’s called spatchcocking. So I said, “Well, yeah, ok. I mean, I cut up chicken, right? Hehehe…” And so we went to get the mice out of the fridge. Three little tiny mice out of a plastic bag in the fridge with me biting my lip so as not to make any three blind mice jokes. I was relieved to see how small they were – somehow that made it easier, they didn’t look like real mice.
“How do they kill them?” I asked, just making conversation.
“They’re suffocated” Diana said. At which I couldn’t resist making a joke and miming taking a little tiny pillow and suffocating each one in turn… she actually thought that was pretty funny.
“Yeah, no, they just put them in a container and then pump it full of carbon dioxide.” Oh.
She laid them all out, neatly, side by side, on a dainty little saucer commemorating Charles and Diana’s wedding. She did the first one to show me, exactly as she had described, except at the end she remembered that she likes to cut the tails off and throw them out, because, “Otherwise it’s just too weird.” And then I did it… cracking jokes the whole time of course, and talking to myself, first the head, then under the arms (arms??), then what I decided to call the torso, then the lower belly and then right above the legs, snip off the tail — and voila… mouse mcnuggets.
The first cut seemed to go pretty well, but after that things got a little messy. Imagine cutting up a sausage, the first cut across goes great, the second’s ok too, but by then you’ve really lost all sense of surface tension or appearance of any kind of “casing” holding it all together. So things, I’m just going to call it “things” start coming out, and strings of “things” got tangled up in the scissors… so much so that I wondered out loud if maybe the scissors weren’t sharp enough, but Diana told me that actually they used the same scissors on the rats… enough said. Besides, a good craftswoman never blames her tools, right? I was curious how Diana managed it, since she’s a vegetarian, and she explained, while I was making a mess of things, that she was used to it because she feeds her pet snake live mice… ok no… line drawn.
When I was all finished and feeling very brave, as if I had just climbed Everest, you know, barefoot, Diana took some of the pieces and stuffed them down the gullets of the cutest baby owls you’ve ever seen, cooing, as she did to the first one, “Open up, I’m giving you the head.” It was really very touching. (And here I will take a moment to say, good night sweet mice, and offer my apologies to all of the mouse characters that I have known and loved throughout my life, beginning with Beatrix Potter and my childhood; I will always love you Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca, not to mention Bernard and Bianca, Mrs. Frisby, Remy, Gus and Jaq, the Dormouse, Stuart Little, Mickey and Minnie, Ralph, Jerry, Speedy, Mighty Mouse and Danger Mouse, Reepicheep, the immortal Mr. Jingles and even the one that ran up the clock. I meant no disrespect, but a baby owl’s got to eat.)