That’s an odd place for a mouse to hide…

Contrary to their herbivorous habits in the wild, the elephants that appear in the long-running animated show The Simpsons are often carnivorous. In almost every episode featuring an elephant the pachyderm puts another animal in its mouth (i.e. Bart’s pet elephant “Stampy“) if it does not actually consume it. An exception is the Asian elephant in the episode in which Kwik-E-Mart shopkeeper Apu gets married, “The Two Mrs. Nahasapeemapetilons.”

Fortunately for the wedding guests, the Asian elephant Apu rides in on does not attempt to eat anyone. Instead the elephant is terrified by a mouse it sees while walking up to the altar. This is a famous bit of folklore, that elephants are afraid of mice, but the scene made me wonder where it had come from.

It is difficult to think of any reason why an elephant should fear a mouse, but the 1903 edition of Holmes’ Third Reader presents a scenario that would be bothersome to any Elephas or Loxodonta.

16. Big and wise as the elephant is, he is afraid of one animal. It is not the tiger, nor is it the mighty lion ; it is the tiny mouse.
17. An elephant in a menagerie once came near doing a great deal of mischief all because of a little mouse. The mouse had escaped from its cage. Mice like to creep into holes.
18. The end of the elephant’s trunk was resting upon the floor. ” Here’s a nice hole,” said the mouse to himself. ” It’s just the place for me.” So up the long nose of the elephant he crept.
19. In a moment the elephant was wild with fear. He nearly broke his chain. The keepers did not know what to do. They thought the elephant had gone mad and that they would have to shoot him. Suddenly all was quiet again. The mouse had dropped from the elephant’s trunk.

[The list also provides the following advice to zoo patrons: “If you ever can go to a menagerie and see an elephant, do so; but be sure to be very kind to him; for if you are not, he knows well how to punish you, and he never forgets an unkindness.”]

This was not the first time this story was published, however. In 1883 the author of Hygiene For Girls used the tale to suggest that “nervousness” was a trait that could be inherited. He wrote;

In some of these instances we can see a cause, or at least a reason, for the nervous manifestation, while in others we can not. We are told that the elephant has good ground for his fear of the mouse, in the fact that the small animal is liable to make its way into the nostril of the larger one, thereby, of course, causing intense suffering and perhaps danger to life. But it does not seem likely that the elephant should know this fact if he has never experienced it, and, not knowing it, his terror of the mouse is inexplicable, unless we suppose that the experience of past generations of elephants has impressed his nervous system with an instinctive horror of mice.

I have no doubt that this story has even deeper roots, although where it first originated I have yet to determine. It is hogwash, elephants are not afraid of mice and mice do not have a habit of running up elephant trunks, but the humorous image of something as ponderous as an elephant lumbering away from a mouse ensures that the myth will probably remain for some time.

Not all stories about mice and elephants treat the animals as antagonists, though. In the 20th volume of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland there is a translated Indian folk tale that reads like a precursor to a scene from C.S. Lewis’ famous The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Once upon a time there was a population of thousands of mice that lived in the woods, and these mice were terrified by an approaching herd of elephants. Surely their homes would be destroyed as the proboscideans stomped through the forest!

The mice frantically tried to think of a solution, but their destruction seemed imminent. Then one had a brilliant idea. When royalty pass by, he squeaked, it is best to flatter them, and so ambassadors should be sent to the elephants to beseech them to choose a less populated path. The elephants listened and made sure not to trod on the mice, even if they did eat almost every green thing in the forest.

As the elephants left, though, one became trapped in a snare set by a carpenter. With almost no food to eat the elephant quickly became emaciated, and the herd had seemingly left him to die. Then a mouse came by and asked the elephant why he was not with his kin. “I’m trapped!” the elephant trumpeted, and so the mouse got some of his fellows to come and gnaw at the snare. It snapped, allowing the grateful elephant to head off after his herd. The moral of the story? “Make a friend wherever you can.”

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