On Sherry Waits's refrigerator door, along with her children's art and reminders of things to do, is something the fastidious homemaker never thought she could stand to live with: the mouse count. So far, it's 50 -- that's 50 mice she and her family have recently plucked from traps set about their suburban Orlando home.
Practically everybody in northwest Orange County these days has a mouse story: Joan Gateley recently walked by the pool at the motel she manages and swears she saw several mice taking a leisurely swim. "I was tempted to make them some little bathing suits," she said dryly.
Here, some 25 miles from the biggest mouse house of them all -- Disney World -- residents are trying to cope with a house-mice invasion the likes of which no one in Florida has ever seen.
An estimated 10,000 homes have been overrun with the creatures, supposedly driven from farmlands recently flooded as part of the Lake Apopka restoration project, and mousetraps are sold out at every store. Last week, the state intervened when Gov. Jeb Bush (R) pledged $200,000 in state funds, combined with $200,000 in county funds, to help "battle the infestation," as he put it. The governor stopped short of granting local officials' request to declare the 50-square-mile region a disaster area.
"This is a situation you expect to find in an agricultural area in the Midwest where they're raising lots of grain, not in Florida, which in general has a low rodent population," said Bill Kern, a wildlife specialist with the University of Florida.
Residents certainly feel they are under siege. They wake up to hear the rustling sounds in their trash cans, to find mouse droppings on their pantry shelves, to see bold legions of the creatures sniffing around their kitchen counters as if they own the place. Shadows suddenly dart across the floor, an old beach towel on the back porch comes alive with a tumble of mice, and no matter how often the scene is repeated, many people still find themselves shrieking at the sight.
"I don't like seeing them. I just don't like mice, and I never will," said Thomas McCrary, a retired nurseryman living in the invaded Plymouth community, with a full-body shudder.
Likewise, Annette Harrell won't soon forget the morning she put on a shoe and felt something stuffed inside. Hoping it was just a sock, she reached in, "and touched that soft skin. Eeeeech. I was screaming and shaking. Those things get to me bad."
Casting about for a silver lining, residents are at least thankful they are dealing with small mice and not big oily rats. The culprit here is Mus musculus, Kern said, which is about four inches long, counting the tail, and weighs between 6 and 10 grams.
One adult pair can lead to 10,000 new mice a year. They gnaw through utility wires, chew holes in clothing and walls, and contaminate food so it all has to be packed away in metal or heavy plastic or hidden in the refrigerator. Nothing can be left out on a counter or table.
So far, the mice have tested negative as disease carriers, Kern said, but they are capable of transmitting salmonella.
Residents here first noticed a few mice in January, not long after the St. John's Water Management District flooded thousands of acres of vegetable farms around Lake Apopka in an effort to improve the polluted lake's water quality. Storehouses and packing houses that had normally provided food for the rodents became vacant, farmers who had become expert at rodent control were gone, and the mice began moving upland into residential areas to enjoy last winter's bountiful acorn crop. By August and September, homeowners were at war.
For combating the mice, Kern and other experts recommend the old-fashioned snap traps baited with peanut butter; the county is buying 100,000 of them to distribute free.
Other methods have drawbacks: Poison may endanger small animals and children, Kern said, and there is always the likelihood the mice will crawl into the walls to die and decay. Glue strips, in which the creatures are captured alive, are twice as expensive as snap traps and beg the question: What to do about the stuck mouse?
"Most people are too squeamish to deal with that," he said. "There are two methods recommended by the American Veterinary Medical Association. You can use a carbon dioxide chamber -- a garbage can or a coffee can -- and add dry ice, or the other possibility is to go and do a cervical dislocation, which means snapping their necks. Drowning is considered inhumane."
Cats are no good in this case because "they won't eliminate an infestation if you already have one," he said, but snakes are wonderful, and there are 12 varieties in central Florida that feed on rats and mice. Problem is, many people have a snake phobia that eclipses their mouse phobia.
"The one suggestion I would make," Kern said, "is that from now on, if you see a snake, look on it as a crawling mousetrap, and leave it be."
If it were left to nature, it would take about two years for the mice population around here to right itself, Kern said. With a concerted program, it may take six months.
Of course, that is a very long time to the beleaguered.
"I hope we'll soon get them conquered or slow them down or something," said McCrary, who lives at what is considered ground zero for the infestation and has caught as many as 35 mice in a day. "We've just about had it."
Sherry Waits and her family, who live in the nearby Zellwood community, where the infestation is bad but not quite so terrible, already have spent more than $100 on mousetraps.
"I think the word we've agreed on to describe it is `startling,' " she said. "It's kind of creepy. I walk around my house saying, `I am a clean person. I am a clean person.' "
Waits was mortified recently when she and her husband, David, were entertaining guests and a couple of mice showed up to provide the after-dinner entertainment. "They were playing tag or dancing or something," she said. "Our guests didn't have the same problem; it was all new to them. I notice they haven't been back."
A sense of humor has helped, but only a little. Recently, the family devised a list of "18 Different Ways to Use a Mouse." Among their suggestions: make a mouse stole, freeze and use as ice cubes, use dried carcasses as pot-scrubbers, make hairpieces, boil for mouse bouillon, juggle.
"My personal favorite," said Waits, "is to use them as a Y2K food supply."