A moustrap of our own making 

On Tuesday, Oct. 19, 1999, at 8 a.m., Orange County's "War on Mice" was officially turned over to the state of Florida. At that moment, the "Incident Command System," run by district manager John T. Koehler of the Florida Department of Agriculture, kicked in, and the amateurs were moved aside. The "war" would now be waged by the experts, the same team that coordinated the fire fights of the summer of '98. The question is, will these guys be able to douse the mouse in the same way they put out the flames?

At a prewar briefing at the Orange County Administration Center, Koehler and his cohorts made it clear that complete eradication was not their goal. Their game plan was to get the mouse population down to "normal levels." (Sort of like kicking Saddam out of Kuwait but not tumbling him from power.) For this attack, the price tag will run somewhere between the $655,000 already on hand to perhaps $1 million of taxpayer money. And no, nobody at the meeting suggested cats, snakes, pied pipers or exorcism. In fact, the participants were all business, and the discussion mostly centered on agency coordination, budget priorities and billing procedures.

But there's actually a lesson in here, missed by the efficient bureaucrats as well as by the irreverent commentators on the situation.

The politicians offered a very low-key, straightforward affair. I can imagine the Clinton War Room with a fairly similar ambience, only with different color uniforms. I can understand that this is how government is probably supposed to work -- sort of hard-nosed and businesslike -- but after an hour or two of watching this meeting, I was struck by the absence of any wonder or discussion as to how this strange event came about or why we are having to declare "war" on, well, mice.

And as the drama has unfolded, I, like many, have been entertained by the local columnists' takes on this understandably amusing occurrence. The national media have picked up on elements of the story as well, mostly because Mickey is so near; is it not ironic that we in Central Florida are being inundated by the live version of our region's cartoon persona? But all the humorists are likewise ignoring a salient point as they fill column inches with jocular prose and droll tales of mice being killed by glue paper, snap traps and rodent motels.

The lesson is that this aberration of the natural order is another sign that we have poisoned, degraded, destroyed or otherwise mismanaged our native environment due to our ignorance, greed and stupidity. If we don't start figuring out how to put things right, mice will be only the first in a series of "minor" plagues that will become more threatening and infinitely more serious. One only need look at our sad stewardship of Lake Apopka and its environs over the past decades to know this is true.

Once one of the great bass-fishing lakes of America, Lake Apopka was literally destroyed over a fairly brief period by an uncaring agricultural mentality that thought nothing of using its once-pristine waters as a dumping ground for phosphates, pesticides and other chemicals from the nearby farms, whose arable land was itself created from the dredged lake bottom.

Then, when the recently reclaimed land, bought by the St. Johns River Water Management District, was flooded in an attempt to reverse the damage, the poisons lying dormant in the former muck farms leeched out, killing what fish were left, as well as thousands of birds that have used the area as a migratory way station. It seems reasonable to assume that the mouse population, having lost a good share of its natural predators, would grow and take advantage of the area's tall grass and abundant food.

So now we are in the awkward position of having to kill the mice, after having killed the birds, having killed the fish, having killed the lake, that died from the poisons that man spilt. And how is the state planning to do the dirty deed? Why, with more poison, of course! Oh yes, the government spokesmen assure us that Quintox, the toxin of choice, is environmentally friendly and will not move up the food chain or further despoil the environment, because it merely gives the mice heart attacks after stripping the calcium from their innards.

Well, I'm skeptical. Because of all we've done wrong in the past, I'm skeptical of the colorless bureaucrats, the self-designated experts, the official mouthpieces, the chemical-company executives and all manner of human beings who constantly remind us that in this new "war," this latest assault on nature, the collateral damage will be negligible. And I'm waiting to see how this will play out, as I sadly consider what another mice mess we've gotten ourselves into.


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