On Saturday evening, the Arcadia Valley Elks Lodge filled with people to watch mice race.
Mouse racing raises many questions but perhaps it can first be explained by a comparison.
“It’s just like a horse race,” presenter Martin Hederman said. “With gerbils.”
Gerbils are used instead of mice or hamsters because they are friendly and less prone to bite.
Mice races raise money for organizations. Hederman said that the they would probably attend about 300 races this year.
“We’ll probably raise about $3 million in non-profits this year,” he said.
Even though the organization, Mouse Race STL, often travels to Columbia and Kansas City and surrounding small towns, they are also commissioned all around the Midwest. Hederman said he was glad to be back from his trip just a day prior to Chicago or “Cub Territory,” as he put it.
The event on Saturday in particular was raising money for the Arcadia Valley Chamber of Commerce, and about 40 people attended. It was Hederman’s fourth race in the same day. Last week he was in Farmington.
The Arcadia Valley event lasted about three hours, and featured 10 short races where audience members voted on which gerbil they thought would be the fastest.
The track is a wooden container spanning about 10 feet wide with six rows of shelves behind a clear panel. At the left end of each shelf are doors where the mice can be placed, and then slid closed. In front of each entrance is a slot for the barrier. When the barrier is the pulled away, the mice are free to run towards the green line at the end.
They don’t generally run unless a loud noise is made, Hederman said, which was produced by himself as the startling end of each of his anecdotes leading up to a race.
Some gerbils make a straight line, and some just stay put. Others get distracted halfway through, and spin around or groom themselves.
Attendees could purchase chips, each worth $2, and place a bet on one of six mice in each race. The names of the rodents might be thematic, like Washington, Lincoln, and Grant, or they might be named after a sponsor. The key is to place bets on the one that will win the race, so a return can be made on the chips gambled. There were only 18 mice that evening.
The other game was the Rodent Roulette, in which a crowd gathered to a circular table with a marker-drawn arrangement of playing cards lining the parameters. Before it began Hederman warned not to touch the gerbil, or to blow in its face, or to abuse it in it any form.
“And, please,” he added, “don’t touch my wife.”
The crowd laughed, and somebody remarked that it should have been the first rule.
At the count, his wife and assistant, Terry Hederman, lifted a plastic kitchen strainer from above the rodent. After about 20 seconds of persuasion by the group surrounding it, the gerbil finally made up its mind. She grabbed the gerbil before it could plummet, and he announced “I have the two of clubs!”
“We don’t electrocute the floor or anything,” he said about the roulette. Gerbils will naturally run to the edge.
He said that he had 160 gerbils at his barn, in a warm room with spacey aquariums. When asked if any animal rights groups have given him criticism he said he is always happy to answer their questions.
"True," he conceded, "we do use animals to make money, but that would be their only complaint."
"We push them with a feather duster," he said. "I don't know how many people get impaled by a feather duster."
He said the gerbils live an active life, are fed good food and plenty of water, and are taken care of in a humane, non-stressful environment.
The first victor of Rodent Roulette won $50 that evening and bought some beer. It had been a successful night for some, and still fun for those who didn't break even.