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Rodent Control: Value of a Good Mill Cat

The Mill Cat at the Embreeville Mill, Pennsylvania.

Rodent Control: Value of a Good Mill Cat

Theodore R. Hazen

Everyone knows the story of Puss-in-Boots, a windmiller's cat, but could they answer the question was he a good mill cat. In the traditional story Puss-in-Boots put on his master's hat and boots and went off to town to have some fun. Any miller would tell you that the best cat to have around a mill is a female cat. A male or Tom cat will go off and have fun with the neighborhood female cats, and you never know if he will be seen again. A female cat will generally stay at home and have kittens. In this way she will have more incentive to catch a lot more mice. Years ago at one of the mills that I worked in, when we know the cats were catching a number of mice rather than just eating cat food that we gave them. We would give the cats saucers of milk, this was to help the cats deal with the toxins from eating mice.

Millers are generally independent thinkers and hate to be told what to do. If you read: "The Cheese and the Worms, The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller," by Carlo Ginzburg, translated by John and Anne Tedeschi, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980, and a number of reprints. This book is a study of the popular culture in the 16th century as seen through the eyes of one man, a miller brought to trial during the Inquisition. Story of a learned Miller and his disagreements with the Church, for which he was burned at the stake because he read books that he should not have read and developed ideas that he should not have told others about. His basic crime was literacy and thinking for himself. Using the records from the Inquisition trial of a miller the author has recreated the way an ordinary person attempted to respond to the confusing political, religious, and social issues of his time. His basic philosophy of life is summed up in the title of the book, "The Cheese and the Worms." You have a piece of cheese, the worms come along and eat it and that is all there is to life, and nothing more. The back cover gives a description of the book, "Menocchio was a simple family man, a miller, the father of 11 children, and had briefly been the mayor of his village. He was a voracious reader, very curious, and he constructed a radical cosmology and dared to present it to the world. In 1599 he was burned at the stake as a heretic." Millers as a general rule don't like to be told what do and how to think. Perhaps this free thinking carried itself over to the mill's cat as well.

In one of the mills that I worked in Pennsylvania, we would clean our work area daily but we would only clean up the entire mill from top to bottom once a year, if it needed it or not. Piles of rancid ground grain that leaked from machinery was always a good source of meal worms for fishing. Most of it was in such bad condition that it would not even make good hog food. So because of poor housekeeping we had a lots of rats and mice. A friend of mine worked in a large commercial mill in Buffalo, New York, and because I worked in a small mill in Pennsylvania I would think they have an even greater problem with rats and mice. I asked him what they did to control their rodent populations. He said they did nothing, they just let them eat all of the white flour they wanted. The rodents would die of malnutrition eating the white flour because there was not enough nutrition in it to keep them alive. They would find them death with their stomachs bloated up and they would throw them out.

The nutritional importance of using fresh stone-ground grains for bread-making was revealed in the results of feeding studies in Germany (Bernasek, 1970). Rats were fed diets consisting of 50% flour or bread. Group 1 consumed fresh stone-ground flour. Group 2 was fed bread made with this flour. Group 3 consumed the same flour as group 1 but after 15 days of storage. Group 4 was fed bread made with the flour fed to group 3. A fifth group consumed white flour. After four generations, only the rats fed fresh stone-ground flour and' those fed the bread made with it maintained their fertility. The rats in groups 3 to 5 had become infertile. Four generations for rats is believed to be equivalent to one hundred years In humans.

We got a couple of female cats and the mouse problem with the mill greatly declined. I was always taking home litters of kittens because they suffered from eye problems because of the dust. Their newly opened eyes would crust over and they could not see. So when I would return them to the mill I would have to give them a few shot lessons that baby mice are fun to eat. The other mill I worked in we kept it clean enough to eat off of the floors and usually at any given time we would have on the average of 22 cats and kittens. The second mill that was in the middle of farm land I don't ever remember seeing a rat or a mouse. We had no problem getting good mousers because people would drop off their extra cats and we could always give away our extra cats to farmers who were looking for a good barn cat.

In many ways a mouse is a grater problem in a mill than the larger rat. A mouse because of its smaller size can hide where its larger cousin cannot. The general rule is, an opening that you can slip a dime into, a mouse can fold up its body and slip through and hide. The smaller mouse also carries the full complement of diseases and infections as the larger rat. The one saving grace about mice is that they are generally timid creatures "meek as a mouse" or have a "mousy" personality. The average house mouse consumes about four grams of food per day, but contaminates far more though its droppings and urine, rivaling the spoilage of the rat. As a mouse walks it urines on its back legs and this ads to the contamination of surfaces as it walks. Mouse urine will fluoresce under a black light that is cast across wood surfaces in a mill. But remember the general rule about millers and health inspectors, do provide them with any more information than they need to know.

The mouse has many natural predators besides cats, including the owl, the weasel, lynxes, badgers, skunks, frogs, wolves, dogs, foxes, bears, snakes, poisonous spiders and many species of birds, including hawks, seagulls. One of the mills that I worked in I would catch or see each year a wolf spider that had about a six inch leg span. You could now run fast enough across the floor to swat them with a broom. I always though they must be getting that big from eating something in the mill that I could not see. The thing that I hated the most is when I would turn around and see one of them in amongst the gears while I was also there greasing gear teeth and bearings. I knew I could not move fast enough to get out of there without getting bit.

Mice tend to over reproduce while a rat controls its population better to suite the food supply. In other words a rat will eat its own kind when food supplies grow short. Mice periodically have more offspring than what their local food supply can feed. This can leave behind a great amount of mice carcasses when the food runs out. During "mouse plagues" as many as 17 mice per square yard have been recorded or a 82,000 per acre. Some of the saddest mills that I have seen for sale is when the rodents and insects run out grain supplies that remained in the mill when it shut down and go to eating the fabric of the building and machinery. When I was growing up we always knew that it would be a bad winter when the field mice would start coming into the house. The mouse is the most abundant and fastest breeding of all of the rodents. In ten months, a breeding pair of field mice will have produced three generations of 2,557 offspring. In the United Kingdom one species of field mouse can produce 17 litters per year with 13 babies in each litter. Pregnancy among females can begin as early as 25 days after birth.

An adult mouse eats about 0.14 ounce (4 grams) of food per day but spoils approximately five to ten time more through its droppings and urine, or a total of 0.85 to 1.5 ounce (24 to 44 grams) per day. A 12 ounce adult black rat consumes about 4 ounces (115 grams) of food per day and also spoils about five to ten times more, a total of 24 to 44 ounces (680 to 1,250 grams. In one year, therefore, a mouse can potentially damage up to 24 pounds (15.4 kg) of food, and a rat up to 1,000 pounds (453 kg). A cat kills about 500 rats per year and can prevent the potential destruction of 250 tons (226 tones) of human food supplies per year. A cat on the average will eat about 1,300 mice per year. This does not count for the potential diseases that it will prevent from filth and contamination. Rats today destroy 20 per cent of all human food supplies by depredation and spoilage. Rats' teeth continuously grown as much as 4 inches per year, so they must continuously gnaw or their lower incisor teeth will penetrate their brain. Cats will hunt mainly mice perhaps instinctively they know that rats become more dangerous when cornered. A rat will sacrifice its own life to kill the cat. A mill being located next to the water and anyone will tell you how huge a river rat can be. A flashlight and an old 22 caliber pistol is how we hunted rats on our lunch hour in the mill's basement.

The Mill Cat at the Cooper Mill, Washington Turnpike (Route 24), Chester, New Jersey.

Ship's cats were mandatory in the British navy until 1995. Before you run out and get a cat for your mill please check your local state heath laws for having cats in a food processing plant. Cats can be trained not to jump up onto tables and other areas. Cats will also learn to stay out of the moving machinery. I have seen many a three legged barn cat but never a three legged mill cat. In some states a cat is okay to have in a food processing plant but if they know a dog has walked in there they will shut you down for a health violation.

Cats have been long associated with good housekeeping because of the personal cleanliness of cats. However cats, brooms and cleanliness have were generally held in suspicion in medieval society. Good housekeeping can go a long way in keeping down problems with insects and rodents in a mill. The sailor, farmer, miller and brewer can tell you that their cats are more on the side of angels rather than demons. The strange thing was at times in history, like during the Crusades it was not against the law to kill and eat other humans beings but it has been against the law to kiss and keep a cat. The "Vox In Rama" the first official church document condemns the black cat. A black cat was an incarnation of evil and consequently it was a death warrant for the animals and they were slaughtered with out mercy until the early nineteenth century. The old saying to "skin a cat," actually comes from to skin a catfish. Catgut that holds two interlocking rows of metal belt lacing staples on the opposite ends of leather belting together is not made from "cat gut" but is a tough cord made from the intestines of sheep. The folklore about "the cat with nine lives," comes from the ancient Egyptian (cat-form) god. The one god thus embodies nine or has nine lives in one creator being. In other words the nine great gods are collectively called the Nine. An old wives tale claims that a cat with sit on a child's chest and steal their breathe. Demons were long associated with cats, good harvest, good heath, wealth and witchcraft. No wonder in England well into the nineteenth century the rat catcher in a mill and the village was a human job occupation. At least in America from early on we learned about the good value of having a mill cat in the mill. Perhaps this came from the first cats to come to these shores in ships with the first immigrants from England. Some mills in the South chose a less personal method of rodent control they use like the farmer keeping a black snake in the barn to catch rats and mice. Most people today would only know of the house and store cats that are kept for more of a pet and companion.

Give me a cat in a mill any day since it may be impossible to air condition a mill and keep it be low 70 degrees all year around to prevent insect infestations. Spring traps and poison may not go well with restored mills open to the public. Glue traps catch any living creature that is attracted to grain or meal placed in the center of the glue tray and are not very humane. The live mechanical box trap works the best. You wind up a winding key and the mouse runs through a tunnel in the box. When he steps on a metal plate he is swept into a side chamber. The instructions say that it can hold several dozen mice at a time so you can release them alive outside of the mill. An attachment added to the top allows the mouse to climb up a tub and drop into a glass jar filled with water were it drowns. No smell or mess with that method according to the instructions on the box if you don't have a problem with drowning them.

Many millers think that you would not have to provide the cat with a litter box if it has access to the outside. Even mill cats need litter boxes in the mill or they will find an area in the mill that they will used as a litter box. A cat in a mill needs to be treated just like a house cat and be taken to the veterinarian regularly for shots and a checkup. This may add to the contamination of the building and the grain by rodents. Cats seem to like to use buckwheat seeds as cat litter. Perhaps it is because of the hulls of the buckwheat are used to cover up human scents by hunters when setting traps. I have also tried to grow buckwheat sprouts around my mill cat and as soon as it sprouts into leaves they will eat it down to the dirt.

There is nothing like the partnership that develops between a miller and his cat. I can't help it when someone mentions a miller cat not to think about the late Charles Howell's mill cat. He described Dusty as his "little personal cat." Dusty would run along the hand-railing of the bridge over the mill dam next to the Philipsburg Mill as Charlie walked over the bridge. Dusty would then sit there waiting for him to return in whatever weather. At least a cat adds to the atmosphere of a mill beside being a good companion. Dutch doors were found traditional mills to let in light and air but keep out stray dogs and kids. The miller would always made accommodations for the cat to come and go. The miller's office and other doors would often have a cut in the bottom corner so mill's the cat to come and go. This way it can find a warm place to sleep at night in the miller's office. A cat toy would sometimes hang from a string was prominently positioned as a pencil sharpener would be located. And many a mill cat was known by the same name they gave their other best mill helper's "Dusty."

Basic Scientific Information Sources:

"More Cunning than Man: A Social History of Rats and Man," by R. Hendrickson, New York, Stein and Day, 1983.

"Classical Cats, The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat," by Donald Engels, London and New York, Routledge, 1999.

5th World Congress on Breads and acereals, by Bernasek, Dresden,1970. (cited in Aubert, Claude. "Farine fraiche et moulins familiaux." Les quatre saisons du jardinage 56 (mai/juin 1989).

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Copyright 2001 by T. R. Hazen