The Washing Deer Mouse
Deer mice appear to be social and roam more or less freely over most of their habitat, as I learned in the summer of 1958. I was 18 that summer and got a job as a counselor in a YMCA forest camp for boys in the Cascade Mountains of western Washington.
My job was that of "Hike Master," which meant I was in charge of the hiking program and was out on trails much of the time. When not out on trails, I was in camp, where I sleep in a three-sided shelter made of logs and cedar shakes. Inside the shelter was a low, wooden pallet on which I rolled out my sleeping bag.
The shelter was surrounded by ancient western hemlock and western redcedar trees through whose high crowns the wind blew in soft, swooshing sighs. As darkness crept into the forest, many small mammals began their nightly activities. One of these was the deer mouse, so named because its big ears reminded someone of the large ears of the mule deer of the American West, which in turn got its name because its large ears reminded someone of those of a mule.
One night, shortly after I arrive in camp to begin my Summer duties, a plump, female deer mouse scrabbled about on my sleeping bag. Over the course of an hour or so, she rummaged here and there, nibbling on my bar of soap, and generally kept me awake with her hustling and bustling. I did not think too much about it, because deer mice were everywhere scurrying hither and yon in the night, which is exactly what deer mice are supposed to do!
But the next night she was back, and the night after that, and the following night. By the fourth night, I decided I wanted to get a good look at this wee mouse that seemed to delight in disturbing me just as soon as I got settled for sleep, so I left a candle burning. At first nothing happened. Then, just as I decided the gently flickering light was keeping the mouse away, she suddenly appeared out of the shadows and scampered onto my chest, where she "screeched" to a halt. With pointed nose twitching; large, dark eyes glistening; and big, sensitive ears straining forward she inspected me, all the while having everything in reverse for an instant get away.
Neither of us moved; I even held my breath until I was sure my lungs will burst. When I could not hold it any longer, I began breathing as quietly and slowly as possible. But instead of dashing away, she relaxed also. In fact, sitting on my chest about six inches from my face, she began washing her face and ears. She was most fastidious in her grooming, which ended only when she had cleaned her body right down to the very tip of her long, slender tail. I, who had never had a date with a girl, not even to the movies, most certainly had never before been privy to such an open display of a female's "toilettee!"
Finished with her grooming, she ventured closer and closer to my face until she almost touched me. That, however, was quite enough bravery for one night, so she scurried away, but not without plotting a return engagement.
She appeared regularly whenever I was in camp, and performed her nightly toilettee in the dancing light of my candle while sitting on my sleeping bag only inches from my face. I loved it when she came to see me. Her visits made each night a special, private time, a time I thought about on and off all day and looked forward to with increasing anticipation as the shadows of evening began stealing the light of day from the forest.
She became quite trusting and seemed to enjoy the little snacks I left for her on the small, wooden ledge alongside my bed. Not knowing at first what she would like, I left an assortment of shelled peanuts, rolled oats, raisins, and pieces of apple. Although over the course of a night she either ate whatever I left or packed it away to her pantry, her favorite food was raisins, which she consumed on the spot.
Camp lasted about three months, and it was toward the end of the Summer that I first saw the short-tailed weasel near my sleeping shelter. A short-tailed weasel (also called an ermine when in winter white) is a small, lithe carnivorous mammal that catches, among other things, deer mice for food. And so, while I was greatly saddened when my little friend, whom I'd dubbed the "Washing Deer Mouse," suddenly vanished, I was not surprised. Her disappearance was attested by the fact that she both failed to visit me as she had so faithfully done, and her snacks were left untouched--even the raisins. I could not, however, blame the weasel for simply doing what weasels do, which is eat deer mice should they get a chance.
Thinking back, I am still deeply touched that so small a mouse would trust me enough to perform her nightly toilettee on top of me as I lay in my sleeping bag during those soft, quiet Summer nights more than 40 years ago. That indeed was an honor!
Beyond that, I had participated in new kind of relationship, one in which a wild animal befriended me of its own accord, in its own habitat. Thus I experienced another dimension of the joy and sorrow embodied in the constantly changing relationships we call life.
© chris maser 2003 (From "Mammals of the Pacific Northwest.")