Mouse Under Box in Kitchen

A blue post-it note in my wife’s handwriting had appeared on my computer screen during the night. “Mouse under box in kitchen.” The cat must have been earning her keep while I slept. When I got downstairs, however, mouse was not under box. The cat had lifted the box sometime after the message was written and now presented me with a dead gift to throw away. Everyone in my house wants mice, spiders, bats, and assorted insects that enter to be killed, but nobody wants to do the killing. I usually escort the invader to the door and send it outside. Nobody else, except the cat, will get anywhere near close enough either to kill or exile the visitors.

I kept the little blue note to remind me of the state of hostility that exists between humans and the creatures that invade human space. Usually once or twice a year someone calls the biology department where I work to find out how to get rid of a swarm of snakes or the raccoons in the garbage cans or the coyote that ate their cat. When I lived in California, I got calls there too. Once a woman said frantically as I answered the phone, “There’s something in my mother’s purse, and it’s trying to get out!” There was indeed something there, a large mole cricket that was scraping around as it would in the soil or wherever it is mole crickets live.

The presumption is, of course, that the other creatures are interlopers on our space, but we’re well aware that the other creatures lived in those open fields and surrounding forests long before any real estate developer made plans to name the place “Bucolic Meadows” or “Natural Woods Estates.” Resolving to live and let live is not so simple, however. Wait until the mice get into the pantry, scatter the Bran Buds, and mix it with their tiny feces. Try living on peaceful terms with a nest of wasps who built their amazing paper headquarters right over your front door and sting anybody who slams the door on the way out. St. Francis of Assisi may have preached to the birds and converted the wolf of Gubbio to Christianity, but think long and hard before you try.

The Bible is moderately informative about our relationship with animals. The first man got to name all the animals, but he wasn’t consulted about which ones could live in the house. The Laws of Moses divide the animal world into clean and unclean, the clean to be eaten and the unclean not even touched (Leviticus 11), but that approach to menus seems to have ended with St. Peter’s dream that everything was clean (Acts 9: 10-29). God’s plagues on the Egyptians included frogs, maggots, flies, and locusts (Exodus 9 and 11). Beasts appear periodically throughout the Bible, including a talking donkey (Numbers 22), clumsy oxen (2 Samuel 6: 1-11), hungry dogs (2 Kings 9: 30-37), oracular camels (Genesis 24: 10-27), child-mauling bears (2 Kings 2: 23-24), and demon-possessed pigs (Mark 5: 1-15). There are indications that God loves animals for their own sake, whether useful to humans or not, however.

Consider the story of Noah. Reproductive groups of every animal, whether clean or unclean, were brought into the ark without any question of whether they would be useful or merely annoying pests (Genesis 6-9). Presumably mice and mole crickets were included, as well as mosquitoes and a host of parasites. Consider also the “coney” or “rock rabbit” in Psalm 104. I am told that the Hebrew “shaphan,” translated “coney,” “badger,” or “rabbit,” is what biologists call the rock hyrax, one of the five species of the Genus Procavia. A rather nice collection of them can be seen at the Bronx Zoo. They’re small and furry with little tusks that make them look like Guinea pigs dressed up for Halloween. But they’re not Guinea pigs or any other kind of rodent. The hyrax is an “odd-toed ungulate” and thus most closely related to horses, tapirs, and rhinos. There are anatomical reasons for believing that, and more recently, DNA evidence also agrees. All of this information is interesting, but of seemingly little practical use. The point of Psalm 104: 13-18 seems to be that His eye is on the hyrax simply because it is part of God’s creation and not because of what it can do for humans. If human utility had been the point, the verse might have been about sheep or dogs or even cats (a species which does not appear in the Bible). Instead, Psalm 104 tells of God’s protection of an animal that most humans know nothing about, that plays no part in the economy and on top of all that, is one of the unclean animals of Leviticus.

The fact that there is a clean and unclean list brings us back to my original problem: how should we treat God’s animals? They are God’s whether they were here first or not. Do we dare trap, swat, spray . . . or eat?

Donald Cronkite is professor of biology at Hope College and a corresponding editor of Perspectives.