She sits in her tiny little cage. She paws around in the sawdust on the floor, but that's about all she can do. She leans to the edge of the cage and sticks her nose through between the bars, searching for the scent of her sisters. She's on her own, alone, terrified. Again. After a while the cage door opens. She cowers in the corner as in comes a hand. Before she knows it she's dangling in the air. As far as she's concerned, she's facing her last few seconds of life. As far as she knows, she's about to die.
The Very First Fancy Mice
Mice were first domesticated in the 1700s and as these animals grew in popularity as pets, breeding also caught on. In the early 1800s these mice were brought to Europe and in 1895 the National Mouse Club was formed. This organisation is now the UK's leading authority on breeding and showing fancy mice.
What is a mouse exhibition?
A mouse show or exhibition, simply put, is a group of people getting together to compare their mice. The majority of mice exhibited are bred specifically for this purpose, and they're bred to specific breed standards, so that they can be compared in this way. The mouse who wins in each category is deemed to be the best 'quality' of mouse - as if they are products, instead of lives.
Sadly, this is exactly the way in which some exhibitors see their mice. Instead of sentient, emotional beings, they're simply possessions. Others who care more deeply for mice, like to think of the events as being positive experiences for their mice, a chance to compete against other mice, a chance to show off their finest features. But when we look at mice as the naturally prey animals they are, we can see that this is far from what's really going in inside their mouse's head.
First off there's the travel involved in getting to an exhibit. The mouse is taken from their home environment, trapped in a travel carrier and is exposed to terrifying sounds and smells as they are transported to the show. It's almost the same as being taken to a vet appointment, yet, this trip will have no benefit for the mouse.
Then there's the environment of the show itself. The room is busy, noisy, full of people and other mice they don't know. And of course, they have no idea what is going on.
Then when the mouse's category is about to be shown, the mouse is transferred into what is known as a Maxey. Maxeys are tiny little cages which haven't changed much since they were first introduced in 1985. Despite the fact that mice are highly sociable creatures and some females will live together, only one mouse is allowed per cage. The NMC rules do state that a mouse placed in a Maxey should be given enough food and moisture for the day, but that's as far as it goes. No enrichment, no shelter, no companionship, and barely any space to move around.
First the mice are compared against others of their breed, then against others in their age group, and then finally the top mice in every age group will be judged against each other for the 'best in show' award. Every time a mouse is to be examined by a judge they are collected from one table, taken to another and removed from their Maxey whilst they are handled and examined. As with any of our small furries, being handled can be a very stressful experience. As far as they know, they're being caught be a predator and only have seconds to live. This is especially the case when they are being handled by someone they don't know.
The judge will take into account each mouse's body condition, moult patches, size, body proportions, fur quality, tail shape, ear position, the colour of their nails and other characteristics. Most of these things do sound like they could be of benefit to the mice - after all don't we want them to be a healthy weight, be in good physical condition and have good quality coat? And the other criteria seem harmless- its not as if the mouse is going to be upset that another mouse has a better colour of nails than they do! But that's not where the issue lies.
The issue here lies what these animals are physically and emotionally going through whilst these judgements are being made. The mouse isn't thinking about whether or not their nails are good enough, or how their fur is looking today. They're focused on trying to survive the extremely stressful situation they've found themselves in.
Recognising Fear In Mice
Again as with other small furries, signs of fear in mice is often missed. They're seen to be being difficult if they're trying to get away, or calm if they're frozen in fear, or its simply just decided that they're happy, regardless of the behaviours they're displaying. The body language of a mouse may be subtle, but these tiny little creatures can and do express their emotions. We just have to learn to listen.
The Modern Day Mouse Exhibition
When these shows first began in in the 1800s, we had far less knowledge of animal behaviour. As time as gone on however, we've had the chance to learn so much more about these little animals, about their natural environment, their natural behaviours, and how they communicate with each other and the outside world. But barely any of this knowledge is being applied to the breeding and exhibition of fancy mice.
So what can we do to help these mice?
What we need to remember , is that the vast majority of people taking their mice to these shows would never intend to harm them. Many of them will genuinely care about their animals and want to give them the best care they can. So the way to change the way exhibition mice are being treated today, and to even end the exhibition of animals all together, is to educate. We need to let people know that these little animals are sentient beings, who can experience emotions, and who deserve the very best lives we can give them.