Wednesday, December 04, 2002

This is for Susan. We're going to continue the animal theme for one more post. I'm telling an old story because my Thanksgiving was uneventful, though filled with good food and relaxation. The last time I told this story was in the hotel bar at World Fantasy in Chicago just a few years ago. I told it to Rob Killheffer and Jenna Felice after Rob regaled me with his awesome killer moth story. God, it seems like such a long time ago, and I miss Jenna terribly.

Attack of the Squirrels

Squirrels appear to be harmless, adaptable animals making their way amongst us humans. They have cute faces and bushy tails. They always seem to be playing. This behavior hides a more sinister nature. In my neck of the woods, there are two types of squirrels. I learned this after we had an infestation of them in our attic and walls in suburban St. Louis Park. I was on the phone with a man from a wildlife management company and he asked me what type we had. There were smaller brown squirrels (actually red squirrels) and the larger grey squirrels. The grey squirrels were the type you'd see in your yard, often looking battle torn and missing part of a tail from a run-in with a cat. If you had squirrels in your attic, the grey ones were the ones you wanted because they were loners, usually nesting only with their nuclear family. If you had the brown ones, you were in trouble because they were gregarious and you could have hundreds of them. My mind went back over the past few months. Our squirrels were bold, nasty little critters. They'd cluck away at the dog the whole time he was in the yard, even though he considered anything smaller than a large rabbit beneath his notice. They'd come down in the tree by our sidewalk and hang there at head level, scolding me as I went out to get the mail. When I planted sunflowers, I came home to find them all toppled over, broken halfway up the stems, the flowers gone. A neighbor saw them team up to accomplish that. They dug up the three hundred crocus, tulip and daffodil bulbs I spent two weekends planting. We had the brown squirrels, of course, and he gave me a quote of something around $1,000 to get rid of them. If they were only in the attic, I don't think we'd really care, but they'd started to move through the walls on the second floor and you'd hear them digging to get out into the house. Pounding on the wall only made them dig harder. Being cheap, I ended up buying a live trap and baiting it with peanut butter. I caught the first one in minutes. My neighbor recommended dunking the trap in the nearby pond and drowning the varmit, but I didn't want the death on my hands. I'd read that they would come back if you moved them less than 15 miles away even across water, so I drove a good half hour out to a huge natural area and let them go one at a time. We were lucky and didn't have a huge tribe of them. I repeated the process five different times, catching each new squirrel within a few minutes of re-setting the trap. Each time, I had to deal with the jailbird squirrel staring at me in desperation with his paws around the bars and face in a gap during the whole drive. We got the holes in the eaves fixed and life settled back to normal. I felt good about it until I found out from my friends at my volunteer job at an animal shelter that squirrels were territorial and would fight to the death with any intruders. My five were dead or they'd killed off the others. All of this brought up some memories. This was not my first encounter with the darker side of squirrels.

Island of the Tiny Killer Squirrels

One summer during college, I drove up to go canoing with my friend Shannon in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. We took her family's canoe and a Duluth pack filled with a little food and gear and headed out for a three day trip. We chose a campsite on an island because we thought it might keep our food from the bears and set up camp. Even though we thought we were fairly safe from bears, we hung the pack up high in a tree at the edge of the campsite. I was a little paranoid about bears because my last trip had been ruined when the food pack was stolen by a bear. (It had been a big Duluth pack, and when it was filled, it took both of the dads on the trip to carry it. They'd hoisted it up high on a rope hanging from another rope strung between two trees. Sometime during the day when we had all been out canoeing, the bear had had to climb both trees and pull on the cross rope until the bag was low enough to grab. The scariest part was that there were no wrappers or drag marks anywhere around the spot. The bear must have lifted it clean off the ground and walked away with it. The claw marks left on the trees were pretty big.) We found out the next day from a fisherman that a bear made the crossing from one side of the lake to the other every night by swimming to the island, walking across it (right in front of where our tent was) and then continuing off into the water at the other end. He'd used the campsite many times and one time the bear had left a calling card in the form of a nice pile of steaming poop right in front of the tent's opening.
We were sitting down to relax by the campfire and enjoy the sunset, when I noticed one of the squirrels trying to get under the flap of the pack. Yelling at it didn't do any good, even when I ran right up to the tree. At this point, he'd worked his way in with only his little tail was sticking out of the pack, so I grabbed a big stick and hit the tree a couple times. The squirrel freaked out and zipped away up the tree. We hadn't noticed how noisy the island was until it fell suddenly silent. Shannon and I looked at each other from across the camp and giggled nervously. A moment later, squirrels appeared in every tree circling the clearing and started scolding us. The squirrels on the island were tiny, barely larger than chipmunks, but there were a lot of them and the noise was deafening. We made a few brave jokes about someone finding our stripped bones the next day and decided to go to bed when the racket faded a bit. All night we heard stuff hitting the tent, but we didn't know what to make of it, until the next morning, when we found sticks, pebbles and acorns piled about a half foot deep all around the tent. I can picture them clustered in branches over the tent, bombarding us and grinning their sharp toothed smiles at each other. A chipmunk stole one of our pancakes off the griddle that morning but we didn't do anything about it. We quietly cleaned up the campsite and paddled off leaving the island to the rodents.

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