Residents fight to shut down Indiana mice breeder

EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) — Residents of a small town near Evansville are trying to shut down a rodent-breeding business near their homes, after several workers at the plant fell ill with a disease transmitted by mice.

The fight over The Mouse House in Darmstadt started in April after nine current or former employees became ill from a form of meningitis that people can contract from the common house mouse, the Evansville Courier & Press reported Friday (http://bit.ly/TRKaG2 ).

Neighbors complain the business doesn't belong in an agricultural zone, and the Vanderburgh County plan commission voted Thursday against supporting a change to industrial zoning for the property.

The Mouse House has been in business since 2001, breeding feeder mice and rats that are sold to pet stores and zoos as food for other animals — killing and packaging the mice on site.

Owner Dennis Bittner said he isn't currently breeding rodents at the business, and he has laid off his employees until the zoning issue gets resolved.

Jeff Hatfield, who lives near Bittner's operation, said odors and dust from the business have come onto his property and he's seen open burning there several times.

"This is not an agricultural activity," Hatfield said. "This is an industrial activity."

The Town Council in Darmstadt, a community of some 1,500 people about 10 miles north of Evansville, could vote in October on whether to grant the zoning change.

Bittner said he breeds lab mice, not house mice, and he believes the infection was introduced to his facility from a "sister colony" of lab mice he introduced.

According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 52 current and former employees were tested, and 13 showed signs of recent infection. Of those, nine became ill, although all have since recovered.

Bittner, who was among those infected and spent time hospitalized, said state health officials advised him to kill and bury all the rodents on site and to burn their bedding and food.

That burning led to a complaint to county officials, who told Bittner that the "processing, slaughtering and/or packaging of food products" wasn't allowed in an agricultural district.

Maria Worthington, an attorney for Bittner, said the business sought the rezoning request "under protest" because Bittner believes The Mouse House's activities are allowed under agricultural zoning.

"We don't think euthanizing animals to create a food supply constitutes food processing," Worthington told the plan commission.

Worthington said the business has occasionally burned pallets and feed bags, but it doesn't do so anymore because of the neighbors' objections.

Bittner said he intends to restart his business by keeping the breeding operation at its current site, then transporting mice to another location to be killed and packaged.

"I know they're terribly apologetic for how badly all of this turned out," Worthington said. "Having learned from this experience, we're willing to do it differently."

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Information from: Evansville Courier & Press, http://www.courierpress.com

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