Dispatches | January 08, 2004

I love squirrels. When I hear people call them rats with bushy tails, I say, “What, are you kidding?” and tell them that squirrels have been around for more than 35 million years. They can survive a fall of 100 feet, and have a good enough spatial memory to remember where they’ve buried a winter’s worth of nuts. Their treetop nests are called dreys and sometimes consist of two rooms and a nursery. They communicate everything from laughter to anger through a series of chirps and tail gestures. Pretty good for a “rat.”

I’ve spent many moments marveling at their agility as they run at top speed along power lines, as they leap from limb to limb like Cirque du Soleil aerialists, and as they cunningly crack squirrel-proof backyard bird feeders. I enjoy their gang warfare. The Sharks race down the trunk of a tree and chase the Jet off of their turf. It’s not all rumbling either. There’s lovin’ going on, too. Among gray squirrels there is a perennial shortage of willing bachelorettes. The males are almost as horny as human males—two thirds of the year—while females are interested for less than one day. The gray males will run themselves ragged looking for a female in estrus.

Squirrels can live up to 10 to 12 years so the ones who have built their penthouses in the treetops in my yard are my guests for the next decade. But if we’re going to get along, they need to stop gnawing on the upper story of my house. Every morning as I sit at my computer in my second story office, they sharpen and clean their teeth on the cedar, a soft wood they seem to prefer over elm and oak. Here’s the routine: I throw open my window, slide up the storm and say, “Please go away.” They leap for a tree, scurry off into a tangle of branches, and stay away for the rest of the day, but they’re always back the next morning.

To get them to stay away, I’ve tried different tones of voice. “Excuse me,” I’ve said with menacing softness, “but I’d appreciate it if you would stop damaging my house. As you can see there are other trees. And please notice that the neighbor’s house is entirely cedar.”

In different moods, I’ve flattered them, comparing their gnawing ability to a beaver’s, which can fell a tree in eight big bites. I’ve sympathized, saying that I believe in good dental hygiene but could they please brush their teeth elsewhere. Then there was my attempt to guilt trip them: “If it wasn’t for your constant gnawing, I’d have written a great novel by now.” I’ve appealed to their sense of fairness. “Now look, I’ve never come over to your house and nibbled at the sticks.”

They can see through my more fanciful lies: “Cedar makes you go blind.” Reverse psychology is worthless: “I really love what you are doing there; it gives my house a distressed, American primitive look.” And who can blame me for threatening them. I’ve screeched through the smoky gray window screen, “My husband’s friend Jimbo is coming over with his AK-47 to put a round of lead in your little asses. He also has a crock pot recipe for squirrel stew.” They must intuit that I’m a vegetarian.

Nothing has worked. As an academic I’ve always believed if I thought long and hard enough, maybe read a few books on the subject, I’d find a solution to all of life’s little problems, but the research in this case offers only brutal and gloomy solutions—poison or trap and release. Friends and family have offered folk remedies. One involves sprinkling the sight with human hair, and the other requires that I rub down the wood with Dial soap. One of the more interesting solutions was told to me by a woman who lived as a sharecropper as a child—a piece of women’s lingerie and a Nehi bottle hung off the edges of the house.

I’ve had a few ideas of my own. I thought about dropping my cat Simon out my office window, hoping he’d mark the sides of the house the way he does our den coffee table and even had my husband crawl out there and take a leak. Forget it: It’s Listerine to the little rats.

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