Never give a SQUIRRE an even break

Think he’s all innocence and cute as a bug’s ear? You’ve been watching too much Walt Disney. Truth is, he’s a greedy, pushy con artist who’ll camp in your attic, sponge off your handouts, then bite the hand that feeds him. He thinks he’s people, with just one difference —he’s smarter

ROBERT COLLINS September 4 1965

Never give a SQUIRRE an even break

Think he’s all innocence and cute as a bug’s ear? You’ve been watching too much Walt Disney. Truth is, he’s a greedy, pushy con artist who’ll camp in your attic, sponge off your handouts, then bite the hand that feeds him. He thinks he’s people, with just one difference —he’s smarter

ROBERT COLLINS September 4 1965

Never give a SQUIRRE an even break

Think he’s all innocence and cute as a bug’s ear? You’ve been watching too much Walt Disney. Truth is, he’s a greedy, pushy con artist who’ll camp in your attic, sponge off your handouts, then bite the hand that feeds him. He thinks he’s people, with just one difference —he’s smarter

ROBERT COLLINS

FOR TWO YEARS there has been bad blood between me and one of the neighbors, who happens to be a squirrel.

It began when the squirrel, a raffish character in a tattered black coat, stole sixty-nine cents’ worth of sunflower seed from the new bird-feeder. Í moved the feeder to a slippery metal pole. The squirrel slipped up it. I encircled the pole with a pie plate, the way the bird books say. The squirrel got over it, grumbling only a little.

Finally I stopped him with a metal thing about the size of a manhole cover. He now sits on the nearby garage roof, swearing under his breath and measuring the distance with his eye. I think he is planning a Bailey bridge.

The point is, it has never been a conflict of man and beast, as far as squirrels are concerned. All squirrels think they’re people. And therein is the crux of what, for city dwellers, is becoming a distinctly one-sided affair.

Give a squirrel an even break and the next thing you know he’s setting fire to your house by gnawing the electric wiring in the attic. Or like Fred, a Dallas squirrel that lived with some folks named Hinkel, sleeping in your bookcase and falling in your toilet. Or like Sammy, a Toronto squirrel who owned some people named Dickman, walking into your kitchen every noon to demand nuts.

‘‘Sometimes I wonder if squirrels ever live in trees anymore,” says Inspector Roy Greer of the Toronto Humane Society, an organization that gets some ten to fifteen calls a day from distraught householders

who want the creatures routed from their chimneys or attics.

Dr. Randolph Peterson, curator of the department of mammalogy, Royal Ontario Museum, knows a Torontonian who has live-trapped and hauled away about three hundred squirrels in and around his home in recent years. The creatures keep sending up reinforcements.

Similar reports come from most other large cities in hardwood - forest regions. The SPCA in Montreal, for example, gets more than two hundred squirrel calls a year. But if squirrels take over the country some day, while we’re all sitting around watching Bonanza, we’ll have only ourselves to blame. We feed them, clothe them, pamper them and give them our names. You hardly ever meet a pet squirrel called Rover or Tabby or Sport, but the trees and attics are full of Freds, Dicks and Harrys. In Vancouver a squirrel named Butch, who has lived in a house from infancy, walks on a green leash decorated with sequins and bells. In Ottawa a few years ago, one man used to give his pet a cooling summer haircut. And in Longview, Washington, two years ago the city council built a squirrel crosswalk twenty feet over a street between a park and a feeding station. They call it the Nutty Narrows Bridge.

THEY’RE SHELL-GAME SHARPIES

Trouble is, it’s hard to resist a creature that has funny buck teeth, knowing eyes, a diabolical sense of humor and many other human characteristics. They’re born naked, like to live in houses, are having a population explosion and love a hootenanny. Nearly fifty years ago a U. S. naturalist noted that squirrels are enchanted by guitar music and one even made purring noises when the naturalist — apparently of musical bent himself — stroked his (the squirrel’s) hack while whistling Just Before The Battle, Mother.

Like us, squirrels think nothing of biting the hand that feeds them. In London, Ont., one of them accepted a dozen nuts from a woman, then bit her when she came out later to shake a rug. Then he bit the taxi driver who came to take her to hospital.

A lot of naïve people think squirrels live exclusively on nuts. Actually, their tastes are at least as catholic as ours. They crave berries, seeds, mushrooms, flowers, shortbread and doughnuts. They go for insects, eggs, young birds, maple syrup and garbage. They’ve been known to sip brandy and milk. Sapphire, a lady squirrel in Barrie, Ont., enjoys chocolate cake and peppermints. A Kirkland Lake, Ont., man once had pets that were wild about jelly and jam.

True, they like nuts most of all—beechnuts, peanuts, chestnuts, hazelnuts, butternuts, acorns . . . any kind. And they have an uncanny sixth sense for spotting good nuts in the shell. A Columbus, Ohio, naturalist, Wayne Dennis, once got thoroughly frustrated trying to trick a squirrel on this point. First Dennis offered good and bad nuts, both drilled with phony worm holes. The squirrel heaved out the duds. The naturalist put both kinds in airtight containers until they all smelled bad. No luck. Dennis opened a sound nut. removed half the meat and cemented the shell together, hoping the squirrel would heft it and think it was shriveled inside. The squirrel i continued on pape 42

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SQUIRRELS

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hefted it, ate it and then, full and satisfied, walked away.

Squirrels ought to know something about nuts. They’ve had a few million years to think about them. This particular family of rodents has been traced back to the Miocene period which ended eleven million years ago. Through healthful habits—such as not working between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., and raising up to two families per year with an average four per family—they flourished. Consequently, when man came along the trees were riddled with toothy grins and bushy tails.

When settlers arrived in North America, the squirrels were delighted. They soon created such havoc in the cabins and grain fields that early Pennsylvanians declared a bounty of sixpence per hide.

England had a similar problem after World War II, when the few grey squirrels imported early in the century had multiplied to about one and a half million. They were annihilating the native red squirrel and doing up to three thousand pounds’ damage to individual farms. In 1953 the government put a one shilling bounty on tails and the forestry commission issued recipes for such dainties as squirrel casserole with bacon and onion, and roast squirrel with lemon juice. In the next two years, the English killed eight hundred and twenty-six thousand squirrels, collected thirty-two thousand pounds and were sickdo death of squirrel pie.

So far, there’s no nationwide problem in Canada. Our only problem is with the grey (sometimes black) squirrel which hangs around hardwood forests and cities in central and eastern Canada. Although there are no figures to prove it, Humane Society officials think the city squirrel population is increasing, partly due to the overflowing garbage cans of our affluent society.

Like most prairie boys I was nearly twenty-one before I saw grey squirrels or girls, or realized how much trouble either could cause if they got into your house. According to nature books, squirrels live in hollow trees or nests of leaves. But they’d

rather have an attic or chimney any day. Sometimes homeowners return from holidays to find carpets, drapes, window' sills and ornaments ruined by a squirrel that came down a chimney, was trapped and panicked.

Often, people don’t know they’ve been invaded until platoons of babies begin to dance in the attic or whole sooty families tumble into the fireplace and climb the drapes. At such times, there are several possible courses of action. In large cities you can call the local Humane Society. In Toronto the society lends painless wäre traps which, baited wdth peanuts, enable a householder to haul the pest off to a ravine. The SPCA in Montreal tells the public how to make its own traps. (It’s unw'ise to pick up even “tame” squirrels barehanded. Their bites frequently require stitches and maybe a rabies test.)

If you’re impatient you can, as some homeowners do, blaze away (illegally) at the pests w'ith a .22 rifle. One Ontario man also was fined ten dollars for giving squirrels an electric hotfoot with a battery hooked to a pie plate in a tree. They’d accepted nuts from him all w'inter, then ate up his crocuses in the spring.

Squirrels arc no respecters of authority. Last fall they ate all the w'alnuts off a cake set out to cool by Mrs. Fred Bodsworth, blithely ignoring the fact that Bodsw'orth is president of the Ontario Federation of Naturalists.

By now it must be obvious that squirrels are taking us over. For instance, there’s the case of Keith Libbey, owner of a black Toronto squirrel named George. 1 sensed a curious inequity in their relationship when I phoned Libbey for an appointment recently.

“Not this afternoon,” Libbey said. “George is on TV today. I take him to the studio at noon and pick him up after five.”

So we met the next evening in the single room where Libbey, an animal keeper for a research organization, lives with his three squirrels—George, Jinx and an orphan child named Josephine. While George nibbled on a biscuit, Libbey told how he rescued the squirrel from an air duct eight years ago. George began to travel with him to and from work. One cold day Libbey bought the squirrel a seventeen-cent doll sweater from Woolworth’s. George developed a liking for clothes.

Then Libbey, who was modestly dressed in khaki shirt and slacks, showed me George’s three-thousanddollar wardrobe, which includes a white mink, a Russian sable, a Persian lamb and a score of other outfits, including some for spring, fall. Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day and Chinese New Year. Since 1962 George has appeared fairly regularly on such television shows as Morning Magazine, Captain Andy, and Butternut Square. He gets fan mail and, more important, money.

"He gets twenty-five dollars a day if he appears by himself,” Libbey said. “If I’m along to dress him. we get thirty - five dollars.” The squirrel s owner apparently saw nothing sinister in that imbalance of payment. But I think I detected a smirk on George’s face. He knows who’s in charge. ★