Squirrel Story

September 12, 2008 | Leave a Comment

Category: Auto-Biography, Play

I’m a squirrel trainer.  I don’t do this work professionally, which is a good thing, because I’m not a very good squirrel trainer.  But because I have little competition, this fact seems not to have mattered.  I began this avocation fifteen years ago when I grew intimate with Amber and Chunky, two squirrels that thrived on my block in Chicago.  Amber grew tame with time and eventually ate peanuts out of my hand.  The kids thought this was pretty nifty.  I put more attention into it.  Amber and Chunky eventually came when I whistled.  When Amber had babies, she brought them to our yard and introduced us.  The kids and I took to keeping all the neighbor cats out of our yard to keep the baby squirrels safe.  It was fun to see Amber swinging through a tree.  I’d whistle from the 3rd floor and watch her swing her head around to where I’d be leaning out a window.  She would make her way toward us, where I’d throw her a peanut, and she’d catch it.

We had to move from that house, taking up residence in the middle unit of an ancient British-style, five-unit row house with no air conditioning and few screens–not unlike the children’s home in C S Lewis’s Narnia books.  A unique aspect of the row house in the Narnia books was that all the units were connected by a hidden corridor that the children could transverse, and in this corridor they could uncover glorious adventures and fascinating treasures.  In our row house there was a hidden, abandoned wooden gutter system that served as a squirrel warren and superhighway.  The squirrels and five human families shared the same space–the squirrels within the floors and walls–we between them.  And for the squirrels, in our house there were treasures.

Squirrels like chocolate.  The matriarch squirrel, we called her Mama, adored the stuff.  Before we made this discovery, Mama would hop through our office window and scamper up to a friendly face where she’d take a peanut from anyone who offered it.  She’d place the peanut in her mouth and trot off out the window and head for the hidden gutter superhighway to store her bounty.  Sometimes she’d bring one of her kids (she had three or four each spring), so we’d have a pair of them running around the office.  Then she discovered a bag of truffles I had stashed in a shelf behind my desk.  Evidently, she discovered them some time before I discovered she’d discovered them, because they were mostly gone when she came into the office and jumped up into the shelves behind me, grabbed one and took off.  I wrapped up what was left–a large, grapefruit-sized half egg of chocolate that had been holding the truffles–and jammed it into another shelf far off the floor on the other side of the room.  A couple days later, when no one was in the office, I heard a crashing of books and miscellaneous items.  I stepped into the room and found that the chocolate egg had disappeared.

I’ve heard the stories of Eskimo men loaning their wives to visiting men to express a form of deep hospitality.  I expect that the visiting male receiving this gift would be familiar with the limits.  For example, it would be considered inappropriate to just move in and let the husband find another bed or to force him to reside somewhere else.

To a squirrel, a gift of chocolate means:  “Welcome to my house.  My home is your home.  Do as you like.”  Shortly after the huge chunk of chocolate disappeared, Mama would come bounding in through the office window (always accompanied by a child) and scamper out the office door, into the hallway, up the stairs, through the third floor corridor, into the study and out the study window.  She had saved herself the work of going up a tree and over the house.  She just went through the house.  And she was teaching her kids the same trick.

Marcia was not amused.  We bought a $100 Wal-Mart one-room air conditioner and now the office window stays mostly shut.

But my squirrel training days were not over.  I had observed a pattern that squirrels only entered windows that they’d been fed from.  They’d exit any window, but if I left an exit window open, they would never come in through that window unless they’d received food in that room.  Last winter, every morning, I spread sunflower seeds and peanuts on my windowsill in the third floor study.  Every morning, one of Mama’s grown daughters (we called her Other Mama) would come by and have breakfast.  I was angling toward having her infants come by my study window so I could tame them while they were still young.  Every spring, baby squirrels would gambol across the vast roof of our row house until their mama would permit them to practice in the trees.  I was hoping to fill them full of sunflower-seed wonderfulness while they were still itty-bitty.  Tiny squirrels are very skittish.  I was seeing if I could tame a little one, which I’d never done, and get him or her to eat out of my hand.

My wife was not thrilled by my ambitions.  We compromised and she put a latch on my study door that remained always closed.  This way the tame babies or their mothers could come into my study but no farther.  They had always entered only through windows where they had been fed.

What went wrong was that Other Mama, a second or third generation of the squirrels we’d been friends with, made up new rules.  At first there was no problem.  After winter passed, she’d come into my study for peanuts and sunflower seeds, bopping around the room while I’d be writing and meditating.  To my chagrin, she would not permit her toddlers to enter the room.  They had to stay outside, and they’d always scamper away if I approached.  It became clear that she didn’t lead them in because she wanted dibs on the bounty.  Clearly, Other Mama was not as big-hearted as her mother.  Unable to get to know her kids, the goal of this experiment, I was getting to know their mom a little too well.

She came to expect her 7:30 a.m. breakfast.  It was always there.  But evidently she liked her breakfast earlier.  What followed, to Marcia, seemed inevitable.  I didn’t see it coming.

Our third floor bedroom window is very large and has no screen.  It remains open all summer to catch breezes, being far enough from the ground that mosquitoes rarely enter.  I was utterly surprised when at 6:00 a.m. mama squirrel came jumping in over our heads where we’d been sleeping beneath the oversized window in our third floor bedroom.  Trotting across the covers and out the door, mama squirrel then proceeded down the stairs and nonchalantly visited each room, one by one, down to the first floor, finally leaving by whatever egress seemed convenient.  It became a pattern.  Early in the morning, we had a squirrel in our bed.

It gave us both the creeps to fall asleep wondering if a squirrel would be jumping over our sleeping heads, so I stopped feeding her in the study.  As a result, she stopped coming in through the bedroom window at 6:00 a.m.  This change was good for my marriage.

The original mama squirrel is dead now.  We watched her hair grow thin and then mostly fall out one spring, and wrinkles appeared across her torso.  Then one day she was gone.  Still, occasionally, in the middle of the day, someone in the office will note the clipping noise of squirrel feet in the hallway and see a squirrel pass by the office door on its way deeper into the house in a search for the mythic giant chocolate egg.  We’re glad that the neighbors all have air conditioning and keep their windows shut.  Mostly.


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