A Tolerance for Nature

By Sam Low

Vineyard Gazette, Spring 2000

I’m gonna shoot them.

They carry on at all hours. They ignore polite suggestions. I bang on the walls but it does no good. They think their tenure is more righteous than mine because they’re year-round residents and I’m a wash-a-shore.

I mixed up some poison but I couldn’t go through with it. What if they die up there and stink? Another reason – poison is for cowards. Our antagonism deserves a more Darwinian approach. I need to prove that I’m more evolved than they are.

They have some real advantages. For starters, they’re younger and more agile. I can’t help but admire them as they leap from my roof to a nearby tree trailing expletives. And they’re naturally endowed with tools that I have to buy at the store.

A week ago I got out my skill saw and fashioned a plywood patch to fit over their door into my house. They reduced that to dust in a few hours – with their teeth. I made another patch of red cedar, ¾ inch thick. I waited.

Massachusetts’s law recognizes their skills. Professionals need a special license to kill one. You take a course and can legally snuff sixteen species of mammals, three of birds and one turtle. You become a Problem Animal Control Agent. A license to kill.

But then I remember my first kill. I was twelve. I told my father I wanted to hunt. “Let’s see,” he said. We found a squirrel in a tree. I aimed, shot. The squirrel hunkered. I missed! Thank God! Then he fell at my feet. I can’t say that I never shot at another living creature again, but I always missed.

I heard them gnawing on the cedar patch for three days, and then the skittling of little feet in the void over my closet. I admired them for that.

I cut a hole into the overhead. Leaves fell out, then stored nuts, and little flakes that I can only think must be dried excrement. If they would only be quiet up there I might learn to live with them. And if they were toilet trained.

I went on the Net.

I found dozens of sites. Here’s one entitled “All Squirrels Must Die,” the homepage of the “Squirrel Defamation League.” They boast 21,179 visitors since October 19th, 1999. That’s more than our winter population.

Here’s another called the “Anti-squirrel coalition – Indiana chapter.” “Our main enemy is the squirrel,” they say. “His main concerns are not just burying nuts and stroking his bushy brown tail, if he gets the chance he’ll cut your throat in a heartbeat.”

But there’s another side to this – a website called “Long Live Squirrels,” for example, posted by the “Squirrel Rights League.”

What makes some people love squirrels and others hate them? There’s a correlation with residence. Squirrel lovers are urban dwellers while squirrel haters reside in the sticks. Politics enters in. A Squirrel Rights League study shows that 49% of Pro-Squirrel People are Republican while only 16% are Democrat. Then I read the small print. The researcher was biased – both a squirrel lover and a Republican. Where’s the truth?

Squirrel haters relish accounts of squirrel attacks. In Fairhaven Connecticut, for example, a squirrel attacked a 75-year-old woman and terrorized a mail carrier. In Owensboro, Kentucky a squirrel ran up the pants of a man repairing an air conditioner. His wife killed it with a kitchen knife. Later in the same year, an Owensboro squirrel caused a power outage by getting into a “pot head” where an underground cable connects to a utility pole. Is a “cluster” of squirrel attacks developing in Owensboro?

I learned that squirrels mate in February. Gestation takes about 44 days. They give birth to as many as nine babies. “Nine,” I thought, “in February?”

I get out the poison. I consider buying a gun. Instead, I put up another wooden patch – covered with chicken wire. They began gnawing again. This time from the inside. Did I lock them in? Do they have another entrance? I began slapping the walls with a broom making a sound like a shotgun reverberate through their quarters. Whaaaappp…

The invasion of my furry foes raises issues that are not trivial. They bring into question theories of behavior, both human and animal; our conception of appropriate levels of violence; rural-urban differences and, as one state biologist put it, “our ability to tolerate the forces of nature.”

My tolerance was reaching its limits. They were up there gnawing. I banged on the walls. They stopped… began again. I decided that when I put up the new patch I had locked them in rather than locking them out. I opened their door. The gnawing stopped.

“You may have made it uncomfortable enough for them so they won’t come back,” a state biologist told me. “They don’t like to live in a place that may be dangerous. They worry about their kids just like we do.”

“What,” I thought, “they can’t tolerate me?” He’s obviously a squirrel lover. Can I trust him?

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