The whole world knows the story of the mouse who burned down an 81-year-old New Mexico man’s house. It appeared in newspapers and on websites in Turkey, Ireland, Australia, Great Britain, and in hundreds of newspapers in North America. The Brits have a vivid way of putting things:
A MOUSE burned down a man’s house in an astonishing last act of revenge.
Luciano Mares, 81, caught the creature inside his home and threw it on a pile of burning leaves in his back garden.
But the mouse – with its fur ablaze – scuttled back to the building and dived into a hole under a window.
The “revenge” theme appears in the primary AP story, and in most of the headlines across the globe. I question the presumption of these stories. Was the mouse’s motive really revenge?
Put yourself in the mouse’s place. You’ve just been ousted from perhaps the only place you’ve ever known that provided food and shelter. Unceremoniously dumped into a pile of burning leaves. Would your first thought be: “If I’m going down, I’m taking that old dude with me?”
That seems a bit too fatalistic. Perhaps the mouse was really thinking: “I’m a dead mouse scurrying. But before I go, I want to see my home one last time. And maybe eat some crumbs.” Or: Maybe the mouse thought the homeowner would have a crisis of conscience if he saw him on fire, and mercifully douse it — something the mouse was unable to do for himself. Running back into the house was just a cry for help.
If you want to think deeper thoughts about how humans anthropomorphize the animal kingdom, you can now see the disturbing, mesmerizing film, “Grizzly Man,” on DVD. This is the Werner Herzog documentary about Timothy Treadwell, an out-of-work actor and recovering alcoholic who found what he calls “the only life I wanted to live” when he moved for each of 13 summers into the feeding and mating territory of grizzly bears near a lake in Alaska–only to be killed by one in 2003, along with his girlfriend.
Herzog’s narration and interviews raise questions about the nature of our own species as much as about large, hungry bears. Was Treadwell misguided and foolish for trying to “cross the line?” Was he, as he describes himself, a spokesman for and protector of, these bears? Treadwell claimed on the many videos he shot in Alaska to have a special ability to communicate with the bears, an understanding of their ways, and the ability to ward them off if they started thinking of him as food or a threat.
He speaks to the bears in a baby voice, as one might speak to a puppy. He jokes with them as if they were in on the jokes, and empathizes with what he perceives as their emotions. Repeatedly, like an insecure lover, he tells the bears of his undying devotion to them. He also states for the record his expectation that one day, a bear will kill and eat him.
One observer asserts, angrily, that Treadwell thought the bears were just like “people dressed in bear costumes.” Herzog points out that in Treadwell’s video record of the bears’ habits, he seemed to go out of his way to overlook some of their more savage practices — such as male bears killing their newborn offspring before the mother starts lactating, so that they can fornicate again right away. Treadwill was not above some pro-bear spin, so fervently did he want their habitat and ways safeguarded against human intrusion.
Treadwell’s video record of the bears is stunning, and that captivates Herzog, filmmaker to filmmaker. He got very close to the grizzlies. These are big animals, with big heads and jaws; sharp claws, unrelenting strength. Treadwell taped, and Herzog shows, a fight between two male bears that underscores their power.
So how did Treadwell survive among the grizzlies for 13 seasons? One theory offered on the film: The bears thought Treadwell was crazy, and best left alone. If so, the bears had better instincts than Treadwell’s unfortunate girlfriend.