Natural Succession

We used to joke that if you watched closely in the evenings you could see them moving in the grass, all those little field mice, loaded up with deer ticks. The trend, in our neighborhood at least, was to keep the yard as short as a putting green so the mice had nothing to hide in, and so might stay a little farther away from our houses, but that didn’t stop the ticks from slipping onto a blade and then here came our kids, running outside and maybe the pants we’d tucked into their socks had come loose, exposing pale ankle, and smelling blood the tick would leap and latch on. Even though we checked them rigorously whenever they came inside the disease would already be in their blood, spreading its way to their brains.

Though it was illegal, there was DDT pesticide around and sure, we fumigated once, wearing gas masks, gloves, and clothes we threw away that same Tuesday morning. We both stayed home from work to do it, figuring there wouldn’t be as many kids around, though there was Felix, the neighbor’s dog. We did our best to scare him away, but he was there the whole time, huffing fumes. Which we regretted, obviously, but anything was better than those ticks, right? Until you read about DDT on the internet and thought about your kids growing up sterile, or with poisoned ovaries and testicles that’d only manifest when their own little babies – our grandbabies! – were born with terrible deformities. Considering we blamed our parents for almost everything, that started to seem, in the long view, like a bad idea. So we stopped with the DDT. We did keep using DEET bug spray. Sure, there was cancer, but that was a statistical possibility. Lyme disease, in our part of the state, was a given without precautions.

We all knew the problem came down to the foxes. If there were foxes they’d be eating those mice. They loved those mice, apparently. The foxes were long gone, but not forgotten, and that was how it all got started. Basic research demonstrated you couldn’t just reintroduce foxes. They hated congestion, cars, people. Still, we imagined them roaming our neighborhoods, not exactly foxes maybe, but something like them. Turned out, what we were imagining were feasels, a new breed we discovered on the internet. They were a genetic hybrid of fox, ferret, and weasel, fused to produce the perfect field mouse predator. They were beautiful creatures: a little stockier than those long, snake-like weasels you’re probably imagining, with sleek, shining fur that was tinted red. They had narrow, pointed faces and powerful legs that could burrow with amazing speed. The first time I saw one do it I felt a kind of thrilling awe – front legs moving in a blur, dirt flying up between its back legs, and then that long sleek head twisting and pulling back with a mouse in its jaws.

To our credit, we were all anxious about introducing these animals into our ecosystem. The community meetings, which were a tradition going back to the town’s founding, got pretty heated. There were some – we called them hippies, though they were just as rich as the rest of us – who were adamantly opposed. Did we know what had happened to the American bird population with the introduction of foreign species, one of them had the gall to ask? Of course we knew. We’d gone to pretty much the same universities, after all. There were dangers, we knew that. We weren’t just plunging headlong into this thing.

But then the genetics company brought one of the feasels to a meeting. Seeing it, so beautiful and – there’s no other word – purposeful, that swayed us. The spokesman for the company cradled the feasel in his arms, its pointed face darting, those solid black eyes never seemed to blink. One feasel, we were told, could catch as many as twelve mice a day. They didn’t need to eat that many, but they were bred to kill. It was, the man told us, stroking that shining reddish fur, their sole purpose for being. Literally. He said literally twice. When someone asked what were the risks of introducing a foreign, hybrid species into our neighborhood the man said there were none. All precautions had been taken. For example: the feasels were sterile. They’d been modified so that even if they did get pregnant they’d never get to term and the fetus would be abandoned. That was the word he used, presumably so he wouldn’t have to say aborted. And what about once the mice were gone? What would happen then? The man explained that some of the feasels would be extracted, while a few would live on in the community, to be replaced, down the road, by younger ones. They wouldn’t eradicate the mice, after all, just bring them down to a natural level, so that balance would be restored. So, they weren’t going to kill the feasels once they were done, someone asked? The man laughed and repositioned the animal in his arms. Don’t be ridiculous. These were expensively bred creatures. Years of R&D had gone into their making. The last thing they wanted to do was exterminate them. It all sounded so scientific. We voted to approve the introduction of these animals into our community on a trial basis.

This story can read in its entirety in issue 14 of Barrelhouse