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Damn Cute Menace

One man's war and uneasy peace with the squirrels of Los Angeles

June 03, 2007|David Page | David Page is the author of "The Yosemite and Southern Sierra Book," to be published next year by Countryman Press.

A squirrel leaping from bough to bough, and making the wood but one wide tree for his pleasure, fills the eye not less than a lion,--is beautiful, self-sufficing, and stands then and there for nature. -- RALPH WALDO EMERSON

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They come in off the utility lines. Like airborne chipper-shredders they dispense with the season's pecans, tear yards of bark from the avocado tree, send half-chewed fruit, seeds, shells, leaves, whole limbs crashing to the flagstone. Screeching like harpies, they hang by their claws within inches of our dog's nose, taunting him beyond reason. They've chewed through our phone line, severed our connection to the Internet. They've killed our apricot tree.

And still my wife thinks I should put away the gun.

When Thoreau wrote that "in Wildness is the preservation of the world," squirrels may have been on his mind--their play beneath the floorboards was distracting him from work. "[W]hen I stamped they only chirruped the louder," he wrote, "as if past all fear and respect in their mad pranks, defying humanity to stop them."

When I poison rats in our attic, my wife is relieved. For field mice in the kitchen, she prefers I bait them with peanut butter and snap their little necks. But squirrels--squirrels are a different matter.

When the city of Santa Monica tried to poison a colony of ground squirrels in a local park in 2005, then again in early 2006, the result was public outcry--and an increase in the number of squirrels. The city turned to Frazier Park "rodenator" Lefty Ayers, who, according to a recent story in The Times, live-trapped 165 of the disease-ridden nibblers and "euthanized them with carbon dioxide." The carcasses were fed to rehabilitated hawks. Still, animal-rights activists "hounded Ayers, destroyed his traps and tried to steal supplies out of his truck." Now the city plans to implement a costly program of squirrel birth-control injections. "I understand squirrels are cute," Ayers told The Times, "but if they were rats or cockroaches, would they get the same treatment?"

Long celebrated in painting, poetry and literature, they now appear regularly on television and in the movies. The Web is overrun with fan sites: squirrels.org, thesquirrelloversclub.com, squirrels-r-forever.com. There are virtual treehouses for squirrels, online emporiums hawking feeders, fine-art prints, books and rehab supplies. Squirrel-rehab.org has been "helping orphaned squirrels since 1991." One Orange County-based enthusiast provides an online ranking of colleges and universities according to the premise that "[t]he quality of an institution of higher learning can often be determined by the size, health and behavior of the squirrel population on campus." (He gives UCLA a "three-squirrel" rating. UC Irvine only one. Cal State Fullerton, for having allegedly poisoned its colony of ground squirrels, earns a shameful "one squirrel minus." Competition is fierce between Cal and Stanford for the best "critter quality" nationwide. Berkeley wins, with five squirrels to Stanford's four-plus.)

Once they were the tenders of a healthy forest; they kept the canopy pruned, aerated the soil and planted seeds. In some parts of the world they still perform these functions. Here in Silver Lake, once they've finished with the trees, they will eat roofing shingles. And radiator hoses. According to the current L.A. County agricultural commissioner, "[t]ree squirrels damage green and ripe walnuts, almonds, oranges, avocados, apples, strawberries, tomatoes and grains. Telephone and electrical lines are sometimes gnawed, and they also chew on buildings or invade attics through knotholes."

Last year a woman in suburban Chicago was "scratched in the leg and bitten by a squirrel as she walked from her porch to her car." A squirrel tore into several people at a park in Florida, including two 3-year-olds; another jumped a postal employee in Oil City, Pa. A Minnesota woman died of propane inhalation "after a squirrel became lodged in a pipe between the furnace and the chimney." Squirrels may carry "rabies, toxoplasmosis, bubonic plague, western encephalitis, encephalomyocarditis, murine typhus, tularemia, endemic relapsing fever and ringworm, all of which are transmissible to humans." And West Nile virus.

It was when they ate the last handful of blossoms on our 80-year-old apricot tree that I bought the rifle: a vintage Crosman Pumpmaster 760, a BB gun that doubles as a pellet shooter. It cost me $20. Aside from its Lone Ranger styling and modern materials, it is similar to the air rifle Meriwether Lewis used to bag squirrels--and to "astonish the nativs [sic]" (as Capt. Clark put it in his journal in 1804). It may look like a toy. But as generations of fathers have admonished generations of sons, it is not; it's a weapon. Children in Indiana and Alabama have used the Crosman 760 to accidentally shoot friends and neighbors dead.

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