Rooting for the runt

I side with the underdog.

When I was nine, I brought home an undercat.  In my memory, she was the most beautiful creature ever with silken fur and intelligent eyes. Adults who witnessed the animal at this time recall a thin, sickly, moth-eaten, fleabag of a thing. (Naturally, she grew up to be an undisputed Ubercat).

Recently, I forged a relationship with an undermouse.

Runty Mouse - about 10 days old

Runty Mouse – about 10 days old

The poor little Runty Mouse had been causing me concern for a few days. Whenever I rudely awakened the mouselets, three would be curled up together and poor little Runty would be out on his own, away from the warmth of his siblings. I would put them all back together every time, but he’d always end up on his own; pushed out of the nest, as happens to the runt in nature. The poor little thing was so thin. Skin, a little bit of fur and an oversized skull. (Now, see, here, I want to write ‘like a rodent Calista Flockhart‘ but I feel unkind doing that. Oh, I’ve done it anyway. Oops.) And a forlorn tail, thin as a thread. He was clearly having a bit of a rough time starting out on this old life business, and his brothers and sisters weren’t showing him much fraternal or sororital love. All because he was small. Now, I know this is what happens to runts in the wild, but life at Burlington-Taylor Towers, though generally unkempt and occasionally unruly, isn’t yet feral, so I stuck my oar in, hoping that Runty would grab it with all four feet and hold on tight.

When they were 10 days old, some sort of mouse-empathetic-supersense kicked in and I was certain that this particular day was make-or-break day for Runty; if he could just get through this day, then he might stand a chance. So, I kind of cancelled everything apart from feeding mice. Which, in retrospect, puts me firmly into Mad Cat Woman territory, even though this was a mouse-related issue. So, having rearranged a few things and called off seeing a friend (I somehow feel that  ‘I have to feed the runt’ is worse than ‘I’m washing my hair’), I braced myself for some intensive paintbrush action.

The stronger three got their usual 4-hourly paintbrushings, but Runty was fed every hour. For about 36 hours.

I made him a super-saturated solution of kitten milk. And squashed molecules of banana onto the paintbrush as well. He was probably cursing me for depriving him of sleep, but he most definitely perked up over the intensive feeding period. You could almost see him fattening up.

And heck, you think of all manner of odd things, sitting there in the half-light, stuffing a paintbrush into a mouse runt’s mouth.

But odd things aside, the thought that I kept coming back to, as we went through the Long Dark Night of the Runt, was a song sung at junior school. Hymns at my junior school (St Paul’s C of E primary in Wokingham) were interesting; Mrs Aveling ruled the musical roost and had an aversion to traditional tunes for anything, (which is why I associate ‘Away in a Manger’ with something that is basically a rock ballad) but, at the same time, this long-haired, flamboyant, moustachioed, brilliant woman seemed to love more modern, twee-er hymns, such as:

There are hundreds and thousands, millions of sparrows;
Two a penny, far too many there must be.
There are hundreds and thousands, millions of sparrows;
But God made every one and God made me.

Except  on this particular night, I was singing about millions of meecelets and how God loves every one including Runt-y. Genius, huh?

I’m not particularly into God, but you don’t need to be to have the sentiment that everyone and every one matters. Especially at five in the morning with a minature mouse gulping down hope for tomorrow from your hand.

And thus Runty got through the night to shed his runt status and become simply the littl’un.

The next night, he wasn’t pushed out by the others. Hurrah! He’d just needed that little extra boost to be deemed mouse-worthy by his siblings. And, putting my Carrie Bradshaw hat on for the moment (Heck – wouldn’t that have been a great show if she’d been writing about small mammals? Mice and the City? Sex and the Mice? No, no, that’s just all wrong. Anyway, Sex and the City was basically He-Man with cocktails – have a problem, have an adventure, learn something and tell us about it in a little moral coda. [Shhh, Claire, you’re supposed to be telling the mouse tale]) Ummm, where was I? Oh, yes, Carrie Bradshaw… yes…. We all sometimes need just a tiny little extra boost to keep going, and sometimes we’re lucky enough to get it. And, sometimes, we can be the ones to give it. That little boost, which is usually just a minor inconvenience for the giver (eg a cancelled date with a buddy; sorry, Carl), can mean the difference between triumph and disaster – or even  life and death – for the recipient. And, well, that doesn’t just go for meece.


Making mice at home

Small creatures of any kind need warmth, shelter and food. With regard to the Burlington-Taylor Mouse Quartet, shelter and warmth were pretty straightforward. I initially kept them in a small box in a larger box, with a hot water bottle under the small box. I got rid of their old nest and gave them a red flannel to sleep in with some pieces of toilet paper and torn-up newspaper as additional bedding. I kept the box on a chair next to a radiator until one of the cats became too interested, whereupon I kept the box in the cat-proof kitchen cupboard where the mouse nest had originally been found. I did chuckle at myself, earnestly taking a cardboard box of mice in and out of the kitchen cupboard (and putting an extra hot water bottle down the side of it…) but not for long – it’s a serious business, looking after blind, deaf, orphan mice.

The original mouse boxes

The original mouse boxes

The question of food was more problematic. After their initial apparent acceptance of the paintbrush, the mice seemed to start struggling to eat. So I went into mother mouse overdrive, trying all manner of things to try to make the process of staying alive easier, warmer or containing more calories.

I trimmed down a range of paintbrushes to see if a different shape or different bristles would be preferred. I kept the milk warm for the duration of each feeding session on a hot water bottle. I tried a piece of wool soaked in milk squashed to a tiny point by encasing it in a trimmed down straw – that worked for a few drops with the tiniest one, which felt like a major triumph. I went to the chemist and came away with a 10mm syringe and a small eyedropper. Both dwarfed the mice. Seriously dwarfed. Like a baby would be dwarfed by that giant escaped breast in that Woody Allen film. Trying to feed them with syringe or eyedropper would only end in drowning, so I persevered with paintbrushes. I went to the pet shop and picked up some powdered kitten milk formula (also good for baby guinea pigs, rabbits and other orphaned small animals). I explained to the lady behind the counter what I was up to and asked if they had any 1mm syringes as a paintbrush alternative. She immediately rushed out to the back and returned proffering a handful of tiny syringes and refusing any payment, which was very kind of her. Back home, I realised that the mouth of a 1mm syringe is the same size as the mouth of a 10mm syringe… At one point, at about four in the morning, when a mouse was struggling to accept the paintbrush, I thought of Harry Harlow’s Mummy Monkey experiments (Love is… something to eat and something to cuddle – especially something to cuddle) and did consider wrapping my hand in furry material, before the stickiness of the formula milk made me decide to hope that my inate spiritual soft-and-fluffiness would do.

And pretty swiftly, they became expert at accepting the paintbrush.

About 9 days old and a bit milky

About 9 days old and a bit milky

Then I asked the internet for its opinion on hand-rearing field mice.

Well, thank goodness I did. Baby mice need a bit of a hand (or, well, strictly speaking a tongue. A mouse tongue.) with the old excretion, so mimicking mother mouse washing them would be essential if they weren’t going to expire from terminal constipation. Mine didn’t seem to be suffering in that area, but, heck, that would be a horrendous way to go, so I followed the advice. A hot tip from the world wide web of field-mice rearing enthusiasts (mostly from the States) was to use a damp ‘Q-tip’ or piece of toilet paper, so that’s what I did and it worked beautifully. I appreciate that the word ‘beautifully’ may not be the first to spring to mind when considering the process of elimination in rodents, but I assure you, it’s appropriate.

To make sure everymouse was fed and, er, assisted each session, I put them into a separate tupperware box (on the radiator or hot water bottle) after they’d had their first go at the paintbrush. So the mealtime routine became:

  • Feed with milky paintbrush,
  • Stimulate bowel/bladder event,
  • Pop in tupperware box on the radiator
  • Repeat previous three steps with the other three mice
  • Feed with milky paintbrush
  • Place in nest box
  • Repeat previous two steps with the other three mice
  • Place all four mice in milky hand in the hope they’ll get some milk on their feet and fur and lick it off
  • Return to nest box

And then once a day, I’d add the following:

  • ‘Wash’ mouse with a larger damp, warm paintbrush
  • Replace in small tupperware box on radiator and rub gently with warm toilet paper until dry
  • Repeat previous two steps with the other three mice
  • Return mice to nest box.

It took blinkin’ ages.

The internet recommended feeding tiny mice every two hours. As the feeding process was taking about an hour, I upped that to every three to four hours, slightly less frequently in the day and slightly more frequently at night. They seemed to be doing OK. They were getting proper fur. They were starting to walk, rather than crawl or seep. They were demanding the paintbrush, open-mouthed like baby birds and then grabbing a firm hold of it with their front feet. They were amazing!

Mice - about 9 days old

Mice – about 9 days old