Nuts!

Who you gonna call when urban squirrels go on a rampage?

 Item: As the millennium approaches, a local exterminator shares an observation: "My phone has been ringing off the hook," he says. "Yeah. Squirrels."

Confrontation (Part One): "Honey, come in here."

"What?"

Our fine furry friends: Jack Murphy rescues urban wildlife.
James Bludworth
Our fine furry friends: Jack Murphy rescues urban wildlife.

"There's a squirrel."

"Where?"

"On the fence. Just outside the kitchen window."

"Really? What's it doing?"

"Just standing there and looking inside. Come see."

"Wow. He's cute. Go get the baby."

"Look, baby. A squirrel. Isn't it cute?"

"Shit!"

"What?"

"The squirrel just jumped on the screen!"

"What!"

"He's trying to get in the window!"

"What?!"

"The squirrel is coming in through the hole in the screen!"

"Squirt him! Squirt him with the sprayer in the sink!"

"Shit!"

"What?"

"He's still there!"

"What do we do?"

"I don't know. But get the baby out of here..."

The culprit: Sciurus niger, also known as the fox squirrel.

Length: between nineteen and twenty inches. Weight: between one and three pounds. Description: reddish or gray fur, fluffy tail, shifty black eyes. Diet: nuts, berries, bark, flowerbuds, birdseed, peanut butter, Wonder Bread.

History: Immigrated to Colorado many years ago (illegally) as settlers brought elms, oaks, fir trees and peanuts to the prairie. When people moved in, foxes, coyotes and owls moved out. Under a canopy of leafy, nut-heavy branches, the fox squirrel thrived. It gathered food, had sex, gathered more food, had more sex, gathered even more food, had even more sex. Now there are hundreds, thousands, getting more aggressive by the day.

They hang around on street corners, bum peanuts from passersby, pass out in public parks, invade abandoned buildings, block your path on the sidewalks, chitter nonsense as you pass, burglarize your birdfeeder, rummage through your garbage, sleep the day away.

"They're just hanging out and have a pretty easy life," says Cameron Lewis, spokeswoman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. "If you came to me and said, 'Design a great squirrel habitat,' I'd design the city of Denver."

Item: Squirrel breaks into Public Service Company building in Thornton in November 1990, resulting in a ninety-minute power loss in a four-block area. Squirrel dies in the process -- explodes in the process -- with a bang heard throughout the neighborhood. "You could tell it was a squirrel," one official says, although there was "not very much" left behind.

An enlightened view: Fox squirrels are not threatening. They are not dangerous. They almost never carry diseases such as rabies, and they rarely cause serious damage to homes. They will, however, gnaw on telephone cables ("they taste salty"), round the edges of boards ("because if they don't chew on things, their teeth will grow through their skulls") and nibble away your garden ("because if you put squirrel food in the backyard and you live in squirrel country, you're going to get squirrels"). If squirrels become aggressive panhandlers, someone has been feeding them ("they see us, they see food"). And if people do get bitten, it's usually an accident ("to a squirrel, the end of an index finger looks a lot like a peanut").

Says Jack Murphy of Urban Wildlife Rescue: "People have a tendency to think the planet belongs to them and that any animal is a pest. Colorado is a wildlife state, but people expect wildlife to stay away from the city. Well, who made that rule?"

Says Karen Taylor, animal-care coordinator for the Greenwood Wildlife Rehabilitation Sanctuary: "If anyone spends any time watching squirrels, they are really clever and quick and have a lot of fun behaviors. They really are smart and can learn amazing things."

Murphy: "Are they causing problems? Well, problem is a relative thing. I get calls from people complaining about squirrels just hanging around in their trees. Whoa. Pretty soon you might get birds! If people wouldn't feed squirrels, they'd walk around and eat tree parts. But if people are handing out free peanuts, squirrels are going to come around. I know if someone put out a sign saying 'Free Beer,' I'd be in line."

Taylor: "I consider people to be much more of a pest. We're moving into wildlife habitat and screwing everything up. We shouldn't be surprised there are conflicts. I think people are the ones who should be shot with their own BBs so they can get a taste of their own medicine."

Cameron Lewis: "In terms of what squirrels are doing, they're just being squirrels."

Murphy: "I had one squirrel jump into the side of my head. He just misjudged, and I didn't see it coming. It's like squirrels falling out of trees. They make mistakes, too."

A not-so-enlightened view: "It's a tree rat," says Richard Ogle, owner of The Exterminator pest control. "They can chew up wiring in the attic, tear boards away from the home, get inside and basically destroy it. They carry many, many diseases they have that I can't even pronounce. I've seen them get into the house and run around and knock things over and chew on things and just torment people. And given the fact that most people don't exterminate them anymore, they just multiply and multiply and get worse and worse and worse. 'Nuisance' is a nice word."

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