Thursday, July 17, 2014

Eeecckkk!!! Lighthouse Mice

I found some telltale signs of a mouse in my home yesterday, on a shelf in the guest room closet where I store copies of my books. I rarely go in that room, unless company is coming, and our cats can't get into the closet. So that mouse had fun exploring...and possibly checking out all the lighthouse books.

Everyday experiences like this trigger ideas for my lighthouse blog. Mouse...mice. Lighthouse mouse...lighthouse mice. Let's talk about them--

Most, if not all, lighthouses had/have mice. Mus Musculus, as the house mouse is properly called, moved into every new lighthouse soon after it was built. Some of them were already in residence in the fields and woods surrounding lighthouses. Others came by way of ships, as stowaways, or as those famous mice and rats that desert a sinking ship.

Lighthouse keepers dealt with mice much the same way we do: They set traps, they kept cats and dogs, they went after the pesky little vermin with clubs and BB guns, and they complained bitterly about having to live with these tiny, opportunistic creatures. I haven't found a happy true tale of lighthouse mice yet. They weren't adopted as pets or even tolerated as nuisances.
Lighthouse cats were prized for their rodent-catching skills, especially at island lighthouses where few or no predators lived and mice populations could explode. Accounts of mousers are numerous though, some of them quite fun!

One of my favorite mouse tales comes from Cape Neddick "Nubble" Lighthouse at York, Maine. The lighthouse sits on a tiny islet a few hundred yards offshore. Lightkeepers at the "Nubble" kept cats for companionship but also to catch the mice. One mouser in particular was so efficient he eradicated the entire mouse population on the islet and then had to go ashore in search of the rodents. His name was Sambo Tonkus and he lived on the island in the 1930s. It was quite a treat for tourists standing on shore to watch old Sambo swim the tidal channel between the "Nubble" and the mainland. He'd come ashore some mornings, shake the brine off his fur, and walk past the onlookers with a determined tomcat stride. Hours later, he might be seen returning with a fat mouse in his mouth, which he carried home for his supper. Below is the "Nubble," the light station, and the channel Sambo swam. Further down is a picture courtesy of William O. Thomson from the website that shows lightkeeper Eugene Coleman with Sambo.
A lighthouse in Western Australia got its name from the belief that rats infested the place. Abel Tasman, the first westerner to chart this area, went ashore at the island a few miles off present-day Freemantle in the 1600s. There was no lighthouse yet, but he found a curious little creature that resembled a rat. In fact, there were lots of these little rat-like creatures, hopping like mini-kangaroos. So Tasman named the place Rottnest, which in Dutch translates roughly to Rat's Nest. It turns out the little creatures weren't rats at all, but a rare endemic marsupial the Aboriginal people called a quokka. I met one of these cute little guys on a trip to Rottnest Island in 2000. He gladly took a potato chip from me. (Shame on me for feeding the wildlife, but...he was too cute!) Here's one of the two lighthouses that now stand on Rottnest Island, Wadjemup Light.
And here's that cute little quokka that took a potato chip from my hand! Yes, it does resemble a rat...from a distance anyway. Up close, it's more squirrel-like. I'm sad to report the Aboriginal people hunted these little guys and toasted them on a stick over a fire. They were endangered for a few years but their population on Rottnest is now healthy. Photo by my husband, Jon DeWire.

The idea of a rat in a lighthouse is not so pleasant, but a mouse in a lighthouse is somewhat beguiling. Poets and storytellers haven't overlooked this cute little character; they've embrace him! Check out some of the children's books written on this theme (most of these are found on Amazon, evidenced by the "Look Inside" arrow):


The mice featured in these stories are always nice mice. They help out the lightkeepers, rescue people, and do amazing stunts. Real lighthouse mice do what real mice do--chew up stuff, raid the foodstores, leave mouse droppings everywhere, scare the lighthouse family, and perhaps provide entertainment and a meal for the lighthouse cat.

Disney's famous mouse, Mickey, is associated with lighthouses. Walt Disney seems to have had a fondness for lighthouses and included them in all his parks and resorts. When Disneyland opened, the attraction called StoryLand had a lighthouse to greet visitors. It became a popular place for pictures, often staged with Mickey Mouse. Below is a trinket from a Disneyland gift shop that speaks volumes about the lighthouse mouse! I posted it on my Facebook page today, because Disneyland first opened on July 17, 1955.
Cartoon mice have had their day at lighthouses too. Warner Brothers cartoons featured Sylvester the cat as a lighthouse keeper's cat who did battle with a naughty mouse. The rodent couldn't sleep because the lighthouse beam swept across his mouse hole, so he went up to the lantern and cut the electrical cord to the beacon with scissors. (Nickelodeon cut that part when it revamped the cartoon for modern-day viewers--too unsafe!) There was also a kangaroo in the story. Here's a website that shows clips from the cartoon with commentary:
To wind up this blog on the ever-popular and ever-present lighthouse mouse, I think John Ciardi's 1962 poem is in order:
The Light-House Keeper's White Mouse
As I rowed out to the lighthouse
For a cup of tea one day,
I came upon a very wet white-mouse
Out swimming in the bay.
"If you are for the light-house,"
Said he, "I'm glad we met.
I'm the light-house keeper's white-mouse
And I fear I'm getting wet."
"O light-house keeper's white-mouse,
I am rowing out for tea
With the keeper in his light-house.
Let me pull you in with me."
So I gave an oar to the white-mouse.
And I pulled on the other.
And we all had tea at the light-house
With the keeper and his mother.


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