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."
"There's a squirrel."
"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?"
"The squirrel just jumped on the screen!"
"He's trying to get in the window!"
"The squirrel is coming in through the hole in the screen!"
"Squirt him! Squirt him with the sprayer in the sink!"
"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."
Says Mark Dotson, owner of A All Animal Control: "One time we found a dead squirrel with the wire still in his mouth. It electrocuted him. Oftentimes, they'll come down through the chimney -- they climb or they fall -- and get inside the house. They'll go around to all the windows thinking that's the way out, and then they'll trash the curtains and help themselves to any food that's around and chew on plants. Usually, they're covered with soot, too, so it's wonderful if you have a white carpet."
Says John Pape, epidemiologist with the Colorado health department: "People do get bitten by squirrels, yes. It happens pretty frequently, actually. During the summer, we get two or three calls a week. They have no fear of people. They associate us with food. If you sit down in City Park or Wash Park and pull out a bag of chips, suddenly there are twenty squirrels around you. People walk down the street with a bag of chips and a squirrel runs up their leg. I've gotten a few of those. It happens, yeah."
Says a local gardener: "We have grapes in our yard, and squirrels just stand there eating them. I'm out there throwing grapes at them, and they won't even move. Oh, yeah. Squirrels are evil."
Item: Squirrel bites eleven people in City Park. Workers dub the beast "Killer Squirrel," "Squirrelus Rex" and "Chomper." Said Chomper is nabbed by authorities in January 1992, detained, granted a death-row pardon and deported to Crested Butte.
Confrontation (Part Two): "Honey, look."
"There's that damn urban squirrel again."
"Running down the fence outside the kitchen window. He's got something in his mouth."
"What is it?"
"Looks like a chocolate chip cookie."
"Yeah. Then again, it could be a pork chop."
What to do? (Can't we all just get along?): Stomp your feet, yell, use strong language, and the squirrels should run away. If they don't, spray a bitter-tasting repellent on window screens, patio furniture and whatever else they're munching on. Trim trees. Block all holes into the attic, garage, basement and storage shed. If that still doesn't do the trick, remove the sources of squirrel food, whether it's a birdfeeder, walnut tree or loaf of Wonder Bread.
Do not blast to smithereens -- that will only open deceased squirrel's territory to other enterprising squirrels. Do not trap. Although some people use live traps baited with peanut butter, wildlife experts say this is not a long-term solution, since removing one squirrel will again simply open the territory to other marauding rodents. And while relocating a squirrel seems humane, it usually is not, those experts say. It introduces squirrels to unfamiliar territory, takes them away from their food and shelter source, and throws them into competition with other animals. If you must relocate, look for private squirrel farms -- not city parks or mountainous areas.
Says Jack Murphy: "Relocation is not all it's cracked up to be. The survival rate for a relocated squirrel is not that good."
Says Karen Taylor: "Squirrels are accustomed to humans, they have adapted to humans, they live with humans the best they can. We try to encourage people to co-exist with them."
Says Cameron Lewis: "You have to look at what attracted the squirrel to the area in the first place. If it was a good place for squirrels to live last week, it will be this week."
Murphy: "Squirrels are here. Squirrels are always going to be here. There's really not a lot you can do about it."
Taylor: "You have to have a sense of humor. At least they're not carrying Uzis and blasting people in school. There are certainly worse things out there than squirrels."
Murphy: "It's easier to just deal with them than fight them. Sometimes it just takes tolerance, and other times you have to live with it."
What to do, again? (The Grim Reaper): "You've got two choices," says an anonymous exterminator. "Either you kill them yourself -- usually you drown them -- or take them twenty miles away and drop them off."
Says another anonymous exterminator: "It's like rabbits. They're cute and fuzzy. You can't say you kill them anymore."
Says Ned Rice, squirrel slayer from Campbell, Missouri, and author of Squirrel Hunting Made Easy: "I've hunted squirrels for over fifty years. I use a shotgun. I finally came up with the idea of aiming in front of their noses a few inches and putting most of the shot in the head. It makes for a clean kill."
Says Mark Dotson, an avid relocationist: "I'm sure a lot of people out there shoot them, but a lot of others follow the state guidelines and give them lethal injections."
Says the local gardener: "There was a guy in our neighborhood when I was a kid who used to gas them. My friend saw him put squirrels in a plastic bag and stick it on the exhaust pipe of his car. That's what we heard, anyway."
A brief rebuttal: "Simply killing them off isn't going to work," says Karen Taylor. "It's certainly not good for the individual [squirrel] and doesn't address the reason they're there. It's just the typical human answer to everything: 'I don't like it, so I'll kill it.' It's just a lack of brains, if you ask me."
Item: Squirrel breaks into the car of Republican lawmaker Mary Ellen Epps at the State Capitol in 1995 and snips the wiring. Twice. Epps trades parking spaces with a state trooper as a security measure. The squirrel strikes a third time, this time attacking the trooper's car.
Confrontation (Part Three): "Guess what?"
"I was going to take the baby to the store today, and we walked under the tree in the front yard and saw the squirrel."
"You mean, The Squirrel?"
"Yeah. He was out on the tree limb, and he didn't move. He just stood there looking at us and flicking his tail."
"What did you do?"
"I tried to scare him, but he didn't move. He just flicked his tail."
"So then what did you do?"
"I got in the car and went to the store."
Item: Rogue squirrel returns to Capitol in 1998, breaks into the car of Republican state senator Gigi Dennis and snips her wiring. Precautions are taken, but squirrel remains at large.
Final Confrontation (Imagined): "Hey honey. Look."
"There's the squirrel again."
"On the fence. Eyeing the screen."
"What do you want to do?"
"I don't know. But if he crosses the property line, he's toast."
"What do you mean?"
"Make My Day law."
"I read somewhere you're supposed to aim in front of their noses a few inches."
"Either that or use peanut butter."
"Yeah. But that might not work with this squirrel."
"The millennium's coming, and he's Y2K- compliant."
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"So what are we going to do?"
"I don't know, but go get the baby. I want her to see this."
"The pork chop."