All of us were raised in a generation of cat-and-mouse cartoons. Natural enemies, I guess cats and mice make a great adversarial team, being much more common animated foes than, say, dogs and cats. These classic cartoons have given forth many mouse stereotypes.
First off, cats don't chase mice using brooms to swat them, with both characters running upright on their hind legs. And in spite of these oft-seen stereotypes, most of us still know and realize that most mice do not wear white gloves, or vests, or bow ties. And most mice do not sleep in made-up little matchbooks or hibernate in holes in the wall with perfect semi-circular entrances.
But we've also all seen the cute cartoons of mice chewing away on a big, delicious hunk of cheese. Somehow this one seems to persist, and is still widely believed.
In 2006, Dr. David Holmes, an animal behaviorist in Britain's Manchester Metropolitan University, shocked the world when he announced: "No, mice really don't like cheese."
"Mice hate cheese!" the venerable Manchester Guardian declared.
Other news sources mourned the break-up of the old "mice-cheese love team."
Not surprisingly, Holmes' colleagues were bombarded with messages from irate cooks, telling them that mice certainly do eat cheese, along with fried chicken, salami sandwiches, and anything else they can get their thieving paws on, including the plastic coating that insulates copper wires (mice have been to blame for more than one short circuit in the kitchen).
To defuse the situation, Holmes explained that his research was intended to identify those foods preferred by a wide range of animals under optimal conditions. Yes, mice eat many things, he stated, but they evolved as vegetarians. That means their ideal meal consists of grains, nuts, seeds, beans, fruits, and other substances high in carbs and sugar- which explains the little rodent's predilection for chocolate.
Where did the myth of mice loving cheese come from? No one knows exactly. One thought is that mice were known to be stowaways on ships, hiding themselves in the holes of Swiss cheese. When sailors found mice in the cheese, they then assumed that mice loved cheese.
Before refrigeration, cheese was stored in the pantry. Because making cheese is a labor-intensive process and uses lots of precious milk, people were probably angrier than usual when they discovered that they were sharing their cheddar with the furry invaders.
(Image credit: Flickr user Petitprez Laurent)
Or perhaps the old folktale about the city mouse that impressed his country cousin with a gourmet spread of cosmopolitan treats created the impression that mice love cheese, and other rich, fatty foods. In reality, researchers discovered that high concentrations of fat can give mice indigestion, which puts cheese pretty far down on their list of preferred snacks.
So no cheese in your house? Chances are, if you're a mouse, you won't care all that much. But being short of peanut butter or corn chips or chocolate- well, that's another matter entirely.
Want to catch a mouse? Save your gouda and brie and camembert. Try a glob of peanut butter, a piece of a potato, or a few raisins- the chocolate-covered kind should do the job nicely.
Oh yes, one last sidebar before we leave the subject at hand. Mickey Mouse was unequivocally the most famous mouse in the history of humankind. But in all the dozens of Mickey Mouse cartoons I've watched over the course of my life, i've never seen Mickey have the slightest interest in cheese or the obtaining of it. I've always wondered if this was a deliberate choice by Walt Disney?
[Ed. note: Mickey does not eat cheese in cartoons, but Disney is not above licensing his image to sell cheese.]