It was the twelfth of June, 1967, when Rita (my first wife) and I found a baby, female, long-tailed, Nepalese climbing mouse (Vandeluria oleracea) lying on the trail in the monsoon rain at the village of Ghurang, Newakot District, Nepal, at just over six thousand feet elevation. Her eyes were still closed and she was covered with a fine, short fuzz. She wasn't more than a few days old, and there was a fresh wound at the base of her tail. I picked her up, placed her in my handkerchief, and put her in the pocket of my shirt, where I carry her the rest of the day.
At six o'clock in the evening, after having walked about ten miles with our porters, we stopped at the village of Mana Gaun. I placed the baby mouse, still wrapped in my handkerchief, on a stone wall at the place we were to make camp, because I was afraid she would fall out of my pocket and get crushed as we erect our tent. Alas, being totally exhausted, I forget about her. So she was left alone on the wall in a violent, monsoon thunderstorm that lasted the greater part of the night.
The next morning, to my horror, I realized that I'd forgotten the baby mouse on the wall, where she'd become soaking wet in the handkerchief in which she had lain all night. I felt guilty and empty in the pit of my stomach. A numbness crept over me like a curse. What if someone had done this to me? It reminded me feeling unwanted as a child! Going to the wall, I picked up the handkerchief, fearing the worst. But she was alive! "How on Earth did you survive the night, little mouse? I'm sorry I forgot you. I'll make it up to you as best I can--promise." Then and there I decide she deserved the best chance of living we can give her. I committed to keeping her, which meant caging her for the rest of her life.
We name her "Ghurang" after the village in which we found her, and, carefully wrapping her in a dry handkerchief, we started the last leg of our journey home early in the morning on the thirteenth of June. We finally reached our house at the edge of Katmandu at 6:30 in the evening. Having had nothing to feed her, which had been a great concern to us, Ghurang had not eaten until I feed her for the first time at home. She weighed one fifteenth of an ounce.
From the thirteenth to the twentieth of June, I fed her only powdered milk mixed with water to about half the concentration of fresh milk, to which I added a small amount of sweetened condensed milk. I warmed the milk and fed her one to two drops from an eyedropper every half-hour for the first twenty-four hours, two to three drops every hour for the next twenty-four hours, and two to three drops every two hours thereafter.
One eye opened on the fifteenth of June, and the other on the seventeenth, by which time she had doubled her weight to two fifteenths of an ounce. She was comparatively agile and used her tail for balancing and "gripping" things by wrapping it around them. By the 24th of June, I took her outside so she could climb for exercise in the two small trees in our yard, but under my close supervision. She seemed to like climbing about in the trees, which she descended head first, making use of her semi-prehensile tail and the opposable toes on her hind feet. (Semi-prehensile means that, although she could grasp things with her tail as an act of balancing herself, she couldn't hang suspended from an object by her tail.)
Ghurang holding on to the tree with her tail.
Sometimes, however, she would get tired of climbing and go to sleep wherever she happened to be.
Falling asleep in the tree.
Although not yet an adult, Ghurang had the general appearance of an adult in that her fur was full, soft, and silky. Her upper parts were a light tan, and her under parts were whitish to a light, creamy color. When fully grown, she would be about seven inches long, of which a little over four inches would be her light-brown, hairy tail, and she would weigh a little over half an ounce.
Hiding under a leaf.
Ghurang was very tame with us, and when still young, liked to sleep in a pocket, lap, folded clothing, or in Rita's curly hair. When she was a little older, while still in Katmandu, she was free in our bedroom, and she liked to sleep in the window curtains, which we looped over the top of the curtain rod to make folds for her. If we disturb her during the day, she soon went back to sleep. At night, however, she usually chewed her way through the fabric of the curtains, since she evidently couldn't find her way through the folds. And from then on, she was busy. When the time came, getting Ghurang home to the U.S. with me wasn't easy!!
I was in Nepal for the Naval Medical Research Unit 3, based in Cairo, Egypt, working on vector-born diseases that affected humans, diseases carried by ticks, particularly those parasitizing mammals. But the Communist Chinese, who surreptitiously control Nepal, and even some of the Americans, thought I was really a spy for the Navy. Ergo, I was warned by the American Consulate to get out of the country, because the Chinese were most unhappy about my being there, especially since I had been within a day's walk of the Tibetan border during the field trip on which we'd found Ghurang. I knew this to be serious, because the Chinese had checked my permits at my last field camp on Phulang Ghyang, a high mountain in Newakot District, and seemed most disturbed and suspicious about what I was doing.
For an obvious and good reason, I sent Rita to Hong Kong on the sixteenth of July, while I close down the laboratory and prepare to leave Nepal, even though I had not completed the work I had set out to do. I went to the airport outside Katmandu, on the 23rd of July, with Ghurang in a tiny make-shift cage in the bottom of my carry-on bag. I had wrapped the cage in a pair of my obviously dirty underpants, which I fervently hoped would deter anyone from wanting to examine its contents.
The airplane was late as usual, so I spend five very long, tense hours waiting in the airport, being hassled with question after question, and a search of my luggage by Nepalese customs officials, whom I feared might detain me for the Chinese. During this time, Ghurang not only managed to get out of her cage but also managed to get out of my carry-on bag--how I'll never know. I was sitting in a corner of the waiting room, as unobtrusively as possible, when, all of a sudden, a little mouse scurried across the floor in front of me. "My God, that's Ghurang!" Without hesitation, I leapt to my feet and grabbed her, my heart pounding so loudly I was sure the customs officials would hear it.
I opened my bag and secured Ghurang in her cage, the door of which had somehow come open. I looked around anxiously to see if anyone had noticed or was watching me. But everyone seemed interested only in their own business, for which I breathed a tremendous sigh of relief. The plane finally came, and I flew to Calcutta, India. So far so good. The customs officials in Calcutta definitely didn't want to touch my dirty underpants, either when I landed or when I departed.
The next day, I left Calcutta for Tokyo, Japan. I had agreed to meet Rita in Tokyo, but couldn't coordinate flights since she was leaving from Hong Kong. To make matters worse, I left a day earlier than planned, because things were getting worse in Katmandu, which meant Rita, who had no way of getting in touch with me or I with her, had not the slightest idea that I was arriving in Tokyo a day early. As always, however, Invisible Helping Hands were busy, because Rita decided to leave Hong Kong a day early. She was just getting through customs as I arrive, and our Japanese friend, Toshio, was waiting to meet her. Fortunately, I saw Rita just as she was about to leave and manage to yell loudly enough for her to hear me.
My soiled underpants definitely save both me and Ghurang in Tokyo, because Ghurang was again out of her cage, which had become unwrapped and was found by the customs official. To my relief, the cage was empty when he picked it up.
"What is this?," he asked, "Where did you get it?"
"It's a Nepalese cricket cage that I purchased as a souvenir," I reply--all the while I was frantically wondering where Ghurang was. In my mind's eye, I could see her poking her little head out from wherever she was just as the official again rummaged in my bag--carefully avoiding my underpants.
After what seemed an eternity, the official passed me, and I wasted no time putting distance between myself and customs. I met Rita and Toshio outside the customs area and stopped to check my bag. There, hidden inside my dirty underwear, was a very sleepy, little mouse.
We spent about a week in Japan before leaving for the United States. I didn't think my nerves could handle another close call with customs, like the one I had when I landed in Tokyo. But I didn't have to; Rita came up with the perfect answer for getting Ghurang out of Japan and into the United States. Ghurang was active at night and slept most of the day. When she was very little and had needed warmth, Rita used to put her in her brassiere in the cleft between her breasts, where Ghurang would curl up with her tail wrapped around her body and go to sleep. It was in this manner that Ghurang once again slipped through Japanese customs.
We land in Seattle the second of August 1967, and Rita again put Ghurang inside her brassiere. This time, however, she didn't stay there, but instead wandered around inside Rita's blouse, which she loved to do. So, there we were in U.S. customs with a moving lump under Rita's blouse. At one point, I even saw a tiny face with bright, beady eyes and large, quivering ears looking out of Rita's sleeve.
Rita, of course, could feel Ghurang exploring, but dared not move because Ghurang often played on us, climbing to the outside of our clothing through the opening of a sleeve. She would run around for awhile before dashing inside our clothing again, either through the opening of a sleeve or down our necks inside our collars. Therefore, we both held our mental breaths until the customs official said we could proceed, at which time we emit tremendous sighs of relief and joy, having successfully negotiated through six sets of customs officials in four countries.
Now fully an adult, Ghurang loved to play. As soon as we entered the room, she would run excitedly back and forth in her cage, stopping now and then to chew on the wire. When we approached her cage, she moved to the perch from which she could most quickly escape when the lid was lifted. She climbed on us or went inside our clothing, where as a youngster she sometimes remained for an hour or two, but as she got older, she usually reappeared within five minutes.
Ghurang as an "old lady" eating her favorite food, walnuts.
Although she played in a variety of ways, she liked to chase strings, much as a kitten does, especially when a piece of cloth or paper was tied to the end. She chewed on the cloth or paper whenever she caught it, but lost interest if the movement of the string was not continued. She often became so excited by this game that she would attempt to pull the string away from us "hand-over-hand" with her front feet. She also enjoyed being gently chased and even invited us to chase her by running to us only to run away, and then run back again only to run away again. And she often stopped during her play to groom herself.
On the fourth of November 1968, a dreadful accident occurred. Ghurang somehow managed to push her head through the wire of her cage and could not pull it out. By the time I found her, she was cold, but still gripping the edge of the cage with her feet, and I instantly got a desperately empty feeling in the pit of my stomach. "My God, how could this happen?"
Thinking she was dead, I pull her out, albeit as gently as I could, instead of snipping the wire from around her neck, and in the process, I injured her right eye.
Not wanting to believe she was dead, even though I couldn't feel a heartbeat, I held her gently in my hand, and warmed her in my armpit. To my immense joy and the easing of my grief, she began moving. She was soon eating again, and within ten minutes, she was walking about.
Her eye was badly swollen and bulging the next day. Although the swelling went down within two days, the cornea appeared to be irregular and somewhat opaque. Her eye became desiccated, and she scratched it out on the eleventh of November. Seeing this, I felt absolutely terrible and racked with guilt that I had not cut the wire instead of pulling her head through it. I should have. . .! I should have. . .!
From this time on, her physical condition deteriorated rapidly. She wanted to be held, especially during the first week after the accident, and she uttered a series of raucous squeaks to let us know she wanted out of her cage. She gradually became less active and didn't leave her nest until two or three hours after dark, and then she only remained active for three to four hours.
By the first of June 1969, just eleven days short of two years since we'd first seen her as a baby lying wounded and exposed on a trail half-way round the world, it was clear Ghurang was going to die. We thus had a very difficult, heart-wrenching decision to make. She was a very rare species of mouse, especially being from Nepal, and therefore, she would be exceedingly valuable as a scientific specimen.
I had worked with museums for years and had made thousands of specimens, but I could not bring myself to make one of her. I love her too much. So, after much internal agonizing and many discussions of the various options and the pros and cons of each, we took her to Murray Johnson, Curator of the Puget Sound Museum of Natural History, University of Puget Sound, in Tacoma Washington, where she died on the thirteenth of June.
To Rita St. Louis, with love
© chris maser 2003. All rights reserved.