I heard a scrabbling noise at the back door a few mornings ago. I figured it was my husband trying to carry his 6-foot-tall string bass into the house after orchestra rehearsal but not having enough hands to hold onto the bass, fish out his house keys, and turn the knob. So I whipped open the door with an “aren’t I a helpful person?” look on my face and discovered … no husband. Instead, eight — not two, not four, but eight, actually eight, really eight — squirrels were on my back step.
Now, my back step is a wee little thing, about the size of the swing of a door, and then I’ve gone and complicated matters by filling it up with pots of ivy topiaries and other girly do-dads, so eight squirrels made it a bit thick on the ground back there, rodent-wise. And they were all looking at me. They were not in intense confab with one another, or gazing about in various directions wondering where they’d buried my tulip bulbs from last fall, they were acting in concert, of one accord. Glaring at me, unkindly. I would even say maliciously. A pack of squirrels. Perhaps rabid, perhaps not, but alarmingly squirrelly, nonetheless.
I clapped my hands. I stomped my feet. I said something intimidating, along the lines of “You go away now, you squirrels!” No budging from Sciurus carolinensis (that’s common gray squirrel, to you, which is what I think these buggers are). One of them scrambled up into an ivy tree and from his perch mere inches from my nose, began hissing at me. Another leapt up to the pot on the opposite side and started to bark. Bark, hiss. Hiss, bark. I began to wonder about their claws. And teeth. They have teeth, right?
I’ll let you in on a little secret. We all know that every human being possesses at least one obscure skill that can be employed as an amusing party trick. Back in high school, Wanda Ankeny had mastered a terrific impersonation of a grape shriveling up into a raisin. My daughter can roll her tongue in two directions at once. My husband can make his fingers point backwards. And I have a little trick up my sleeve, too. I can brilliantly imitate the noise of — yes, you guessed it — Sciurus carolinensis.
So I let it rip, my squirrel imitation, yet the Pack of Eight, they did not budge. In fact, they advanced. Slowly, with intent. Mind you, I have absolutely no idea what my patented squirrel imitation says in Squirrel Speak. I might be telling them all to take a giant leap off the nearest bird feeder, or I might be inviting them to procreate by candlelight. Either way, you’d think the idea of being spoken to in their native tongue about anything by a 5-foot-tall menopausal giant squirrel might spook the danged things. But no. They advanced. They crept. They had, it is fair to say, a malevolent gleam in their various eyes.
At this moment, my husband pulled up and parked in front of the house, all the better to unload the string bass. I kicked my way down the steps through the rodents and as they spilled into the yard, they were suddenly joined by another six or seven squirrel pals. This invading hoard began streaking and streaming around the yard, looking like a sewer scene from “Ben.” I ran over to the car and began telling my squirrel tale to my husband, who continued to unpack his bass while regarding me with what I’ll kindly label a jaundiced eye. I cannot swear to whether he simply thought or actually spoke the words “Dear, I’m sure you’re imagining things” while patting me on the head, but it is fair to say that condescension was in the air.
Fine with me. I had places to go where I need not take attitude from either squirrel nor man, so I grabbed my purse from the house, took possession of the car, and headed off. About 30 minutes later, my husband phoned. “You won’t believe this,” he said, “but the squirrels are acting odd.”
“Oh, surely not,” I replied.
“Oh, yes,” he said, ever oblivious to sarcasm. “They are actually barking at me. And hissing. And there are a lot of them! Here, listen!” He held the phone up to, I suppose, a squirrel, and it obligingly barked right into it.
“Clean that phone off when you’re done,” I said.
“I think they’re threatening me,” he said. “I’m calling the University.” He hung up and phoned an animal behavior department somewhere on campus to get right to the bottom of this squirrel issue. No one ever called him back; my guess is the graduate student who answered the phone is still rolling around on the floor of a lab somewhere on the St. Paul campus, helplessly convulsed in giggles.
I am a gardener and therefore, I hate squirrels. I hate squirrels because they terrorize plants, yanking them up repeatedly by the roots just to interfere with their development. They take one bite out of each cucumber — they don’t like cucumbers, they’re just messing with me. I have live-trapped them and driven them across a river, over the train tracks, and beyond the freeway to set them free in St. Paul; on my way back, I pass drivers returning from my neighborhood with empty live traps, looking rather pleased with themselves. There is no escaping them.
Last weekend, I spent the night at a friend’s cabin in Wisconsin. I slept with the windows gloriously open to the cooling night breezes and the sounds of the crickets and the tree frogs and an absolutely bloodcurdling, shrieking, horrid scream that went on and off for the better part of half an hour. I have since determined, thanks to dark videos shot by freaked out campers that are aired on YouTube, that I was most likely listening to a fox do what foxes do when they stroll around in the woods: yell their heads off.
My friend is a gardener, too, but has none of my troubles with city squirrels. She lives in the country, where mammals with nastier attitudes can make way scarier noises and shut those Sciurus carolinensis up. I gotta get me one of those foxes.
This was first published in Southwest Journal June 30, 2008.