Why Vinnie The Vole?

(I get this question pretty frequently, especially from people a generation or so ahead of me who don't really get the whole "dedicated semi-universal internet pseudonym" thing.  A lot of them just used their full names for things because their main interaction with the internet was in business where cutesy or creative CB-type handles weren't appropriate.  The generation of kids just now graduating high school pretty much don't even bother because they all have cipher-ish emails like asjhd32341@gmail.com or the obvious j.doe@gmail.com, and most of their non-anonymous interactions with the internet are done through universal logins like the Google or MSN logins where you can log-in with your entire blog profile to play Xbox or to comment on something. 

In my generation, though, we were the first to use things like chat-rooms and web-forums with regularity, and chances are if we were members of one, we were members of several.  Each had their own logins and passwords and it became exceedingly difficult to track someone over the span of several of these sites if they didn't consistently use the same username.  The same is true of the very earliest blogs before they had really effective Google cache-ing and only a current search in something like AltaVista, WebCrawler or the then-new Yahoo would come up with cross-references.  So to keep things simple, most of us adopted a relatively consistent and static username.  Since there can only be so many DarthVader and BartSimpsons, and the idea of making them alphanumeric was irritating as hell, many of these usernames were odd and funny or seemed to reference a puzzling and microscopically obscure inside joke.   

It was about my second year in college when I settled on Vinnie the Vole, and here's the story of the events that led up to it.)

I took a class in college called Mammalogy, which included the study of virtually every mammal type and focused in particular on the mammals who were indigenous to upstate NY, where SLU was located.  Naturally, this meant I was studying deer and bear and every sort of small feral creature from foxes and skunks to river otters and bats, but one of the biggest groups of mammals indigenous to the area were rodents.  There were dozens of varieties including squirrels, field mice, rats, moles, and voles. 

Wait, you ask, before you go any further: what the hell is a vole?

A vole is a very small rodent that has several sub-types, but generally looks like a miniature cross between a mouse and a chipmunk.  They are fat and very fluffy, almost like a hampster, and there are many different species of them.


As it turned out, part of my main project for that class was to conduct some live-trapping along an ecotome (an area where open grassland turned to woodland), and my partner and I set out a grid of something like fifty or sixty live-traps over the course of a week.  These traps needed to be checked every 12 hours because the animals that would get into them had metabolism so high that even with plenty of yummy peanut butter to snack on, they'd often quickly die of starvation.  Our goal was to see what sorts of animals we could catch along which sorts of terrain and map this out over the course of a week to see where they tended to travel through most heavily during certain times of the day and night.

As a secondary project, we were supposed to take a black-light flashlight with us and a bag of phosphorescent dust.  Were we to catch an animal and it be docile enough to cooperate (not the insane red squirrels that would occasionally wander into them), we would dump the animal into the plastic bag and sort of shake-n-bake them in this dust before letting them run free to scamper away.  We'd shine the light down and be able to follow the animal's tiny glowing footprints as it fled, and we could follow the path it would take back to cover.  This was all good and fun, and no one was more surprised than our professor when we proudly proclaimed that one day we had caught a red-backed vole.  Not just any red-backed vole, but a striped one that literally looked like a tiny chipmunk.  We could tell it was a vole because their teeth are considerably different from any other type of rodent's teeth.  Evidently they were fairly rare in that area and it was unusual to catch one.  We shake-n-baked him and let him go.

The next day, we caught another one.  Holy smokes, we thought. What are the odds?  This time we kept him for a few hours and showed him to our professor, who instructed us to take a black sharpie marker and put a little dot on its forehead to ensure that it wasn't just the same brazen vole stopping into our traps again for a snack.  The third night came and sure enough we caught him again, this time we kept him for a night or two in the lab in a small enclosure so he'd stop setting off our traps and screwing with our data.  Plus, by then we were sort of fond of him and we didn't want him to get stuck in a trap and freeze if the night got too cold or there wasn't enough peanut butter in any given trap.  Eventually we released our little buddy, Vinnie the vole, back into the woods along the running track down the hill behind the Augsbury center. 

So there you have it.  Later that year I changed my old internet handle (CaptainCaveman) to Vinnie the Vole, which had the obvious advantage of being much, much less likely to not be taken when registering for usernames, ISPs, email addresses, or virtually anything involving the rapidly-growing mid-90's internet.  Voles have a maximum lifespan of about 18 months, so he's long-gone, but little Vinnie's legend lives on.