Owner Dennis Bittner says he got into rodent production shortly after his youngest son finally convinced him to buy a pet snake. Bittner says one snake quickly became 15, so they started raising their own mice to feed them. Eventually, Bittner raised so many mice that he found himself with a surplus, so he started selling the extra mice to local pet stores.
"It became really fun," says Bittner. He decided to turn his new-found hobby into a business. In 2001, The Mouse House was born. Bittner breeds, kills, freezes and packages mice to be sold at pet stores and zoos to be sold as food for animals.
"Business has been very good. It's a little niche that we got into and it's been very good for both myself and my workers. We had up to 43 employees at the beginning of this year," says Bittner.
But in April, several employees at The Mouse House developed LCMV, a form of meningitis that people can catch from the common house mouse.
"Even through all of our precautions of outside traps, and rodent barriers, and metal buildings, somehow a wild rodent got in and infected our colony which caused several of our employees to get sick," says Bittner, who also fell ill to the virus. According to the Center of Disease Control's field report on the incident, 13 of 52 current and past employees tested positive for the virus.
Bittner shut down operations to sanitize the facility. He says health officials told him to kill and bury all of the rodents on-site, and burn their bedding onsite. But during the sanitation process, neighbors began to raise concerns.
"We're supposed to burn the bedding on-site and bury the rodents on-site so we didn't infect anybody going up and down the roads," explained Bittner. He believes burning the mice's bedding is what caused controversy.
Neighbors like Jeff Hatfield say it comes down to two things -- odor and open burning. Hatfield lives near The Mouse House. He says he's watched dust from open burning activities at The Mouse House blow into his property. "I think if those two issues were resolved probably most people would not care if it's there or not."
Bittner says there were several mistakes made during the sanitation process. "Some of the pits were smoldering overnight when they should have been put out completely and that's what caused a lot of the controversy." Bittner says on the night that happened, he was being hospitalized for LCMV. He admits the fire pits should have been fully extinguished, rather than left smoldering.
The error led to a complaint to county officials, who in turn told Bittner he needed to rezone from agricultural to industrial to maintain his current practices. The Area Plan Commission told Bittner the "processing, slaughtering and/or packaging of food products" was in line with industrial zoning rather than agricultural zoning. Bittner doesn't believe euthanizing mice for animal feed should be determined as food processing.
In September the Area Plan Commission denied Bittner's rezoning request. It gave the Darmstadt Town Council 90 days to make the final decision. After nearly three hours of deliberating, Tuesday evening the Darmstadt Town Council voted to deny Bittner's request.
Bittner says the decision won't stop his business, but he'll be forced to change his practices. He must buy another location at which he can euthanize and freeze the mice. Bittner says he wants to bring as many of his 43 employees back to work as possible, but the increased costs of purchasing and maintaining another location, and transporting the mice to that location will make it tough. "We're disappointed. But we'll just deal with it, and keep going," says Bittner.