Respect for a Squirrel

I have a confession to make. Well two I guess. I don’t really like squirrels. But I have a lot of respect for one.

I dislike most rodent-like or rodent animals. There are exceptions. I had a school friend who owned a large white rat and when I looked in to her pink eyes, I fell in love. She used to crawl up my leg, make a circle around my waist and then settle on my shoulder while resting her nose in my ear and fall asleep. Or more often than that, she would crawl in to my pocket and peek out, caressing me with her cheek like a cat. I loved that white rat. I cannot remember which school boy or what the rat’s name was, but I remember those moments crisp in my memory. They had an impression on me. However, most of the time I have had experiences they were bad. I briefly dated a boy who owned ferrets and would later stalk me after our breakup. He would bring the one ferret to meet me and leave him in the car. The distressed and badly trained dark furred being would immediately scratch at my legs or bite my ankles and knees. I dated yet a second man-child that I met at a bus stop who had ferrets. Also badly trained and ill taken care of and were awful smelly beasts that I learned to be leery of. I now associate ferrets with the smell of rotted takeout and badly lit basement suites. Bunnies are also not a favorite of mine, although my daughter has been begging me for one. In grade four we had a resident bunny in our class. We had to take turns cleaning its cage, grooming it and playing with it. It was supposed to teach us responsibility and a love for animals. Every time I was forced to be around that thing I was wishing I could bring my cat to school so she could eat it. It was a nervous, boring animal. Marginally cute, but anxious and all it seemed to do was gnaw and poop. It reminded me of the girls in my class who did nothing but smack their gum and say biting catch-phrases. A bunny is not a great pet for a class. They hate the noise and lack of privacy and too much petting. Every time I had to move that dumb thing with its white soft fur and dirty looking spots it would bite me. It was anxious and over-stimulated, I get that. But, still. I would move it, it would bite me. Then I got the privilege of cleaning out all its poop (how does such a small animal poop so much!), and changing its cage while it hopped nervously around its temporary pen. We’d put it back and it would inevitably poop a ton as soon as it returned, undoing all of our good work. It seemed exhausting and boring to have such a silly animal around. Ditto for the hamster we had in the kindergarten class room.

So when I moved to Calgary in 2001 after graduating with a B.A in English and English Lit and got bit by a black squirrel I was not at all surprised. I had just moved here and was walking across the park home. I saw two black squirrels fighting to the right of me. They caught my eye at first because of their awful, angry chirping and then because of their dark colouring. In Saskatchewan I had never seen mean, lean and black coloured squirrels. At my grandpa’s cabin we used to see fluffy, almost chipmunk-like, light brown squirrels. They seemed much friendlier, even as they were destroying every power cord and all of the insulation in my grandpa’s work sheds, to our dismay. So to walk in a park and see two angry “city” squirrels was surprising to small town me. And then they started running and chasing each other in a huff. They seemed to be going at a diagonal rush to a tree just in front of me but then the front one changed course which the second one seemed to catch just a second too late. The second squirrel changed direction and ran smack in to my ankle, which he bit. Hard. His anger was directed at the first squirrel which I tried to understand, but it still hurt like hell. And then! Instead of continuing after finding out his mistake he angrily scratched my leg, as if I was to blame! I had to spend my evening at a walk in clinic getting shots to prevent infection. Since then I haven’t been that fond of squirrels. I am especially leery of the darker furred ones and so my Husband calls me a “squirrel racist”.

I spent 7 months in Calgary that time before needing the adventure of travel (and the money!!) so I left to teach English in Japan. I loved immersing myself in another culture, to a point, but found out I am not the Kerouac wanderer type I fancied myself to be and missed “my” Canada too much. I  wouldn’t trade the experience but have no desire to do it again. A couple of months maybe but not a year.  Then Saskatoon, Vancouver and back to Calgary in 2007. I met my husband that year and stayed on. I found that Calgary really became “my” city that year and the years to follow. Every year I fall in love with it more and more. It feels like Home with a capital H to me. So a couple of years ago we moved in to a new rental, a gorgeous townhouse. It is the longest I have lived in one place. I have slowly made this rental more mine than anywhere I have ever lived. We have no yard. Instead we have three balconies. One is by our unit’s front door and opens on to a courtyard full of trees and is enclosed by the other townhouses. This is where I decided to set up a garden this year. I envisioned myself having tea sitting at my new patio set (buying that set is another story altogether), while gazing upon my pots of vegetables, herbs and abundant flowers. I carefully planned my pots and set about buying seeds and grown flowers. I succeeded in making a cute, eclectic collection of pots on my little concrete square in the world.

Cheerfully I put the kids down to nap one sunny summer day and made a cup of tea. I stepped outside to do some gardening and sit at my patio table when my eyes took in a disgusting sight. A pile of dirt on the ground beside not one, not two, but three pots. The flowers and herbs were tilting dangerously to the side and already looked sad and wilting. I slammed my cup of tea down on the table, replaced the dirt and patted my plants back in to place. I huffed inside and sat down to Google solutions. But what had done it? I suspected the jack-rabbit that was always around, fearless of humans and had grown huge. Josh suspected it could be the mother skunk he had seen around. The myriad of squirrels was always a possibility tho. I Googled rabbits in potted plants, decided that it was Mr Jack-Rabbit. I sprinkled cayenne pepper on them after reading several gardening posts declaring that was the sure solution. But then it kept happening. I was puzzled until….

One fine day I walked out of our door to a squirrel caught mid-dig! He looked up in surprise and then high-tailed it. The squirrel had been balancing on the edge of the pot and digging in the small spots of dirt that didn’t have pepper on top. Crafty bastard.  I Googled squirrels. It suggested Cayenne Pepper and one old lady gardener offered a solution she would use until she could get to the store for blood meal. Plastic forks! She suggested you stick them in, tines up, to create a mini barbed wire effect until you could get a more permanent solution. She suggested, as did others, blood meal as a definite solution. It makes your plant smell like a predator so that herbivores quit coming close to them. Genius. But I read it was expensive, wasn’t sure what I would be looking for and never did get to the store to try to find it anyway. Besides, the fork thing was working! It wasn’t the prettiest solution and people thought that I had gone batty, but it worked. So I kept them in and my plants were beautiful as soon as they grew enough to hide the weird looking fork-fence. For awhile.

Then one day I saw some forks on the ground. What???? I had noticed only one squirrel around lately that was brave enough to come close to my plants. I suspected it was him that had removed the forks. He is different from the other squirrels. He moves faster. He is darker in colour. Not brown-black but ink-black. He is a bit shorter in length and has slightly longer ears. When the other squirrels, predictably, scurry, he hops and dives and nearly glides. He hops mostly to get from  point A to B and doesn’t dally. He stops to look at the humans more than the other squirrels and doesn’t freeze in fear but seems to stare at you in genuine interest at your presence. Not that he seems comfortable approaching. He still has a healthy fear of anything larger than him. I began to call him George when I referred to him in my head. Yes, after the monkey because, yes, he seems more Curious than the other squirrels and as mischievous as the monkey from the famed cartoon. Not very inventive but very fitting. I began to stalk George from my kitchen window. Since I was often already there doing dishes it was easy to track this little punk’s movements.

I saw it one day finally. I saw George jump and hop across the lawn in a few effortless bounds. He stopped on the grass fringing our patio block and sniffed the air, then stared at the door for a while to make sure it wasn’t moving. Then he picked something up from the grass in his mouth. A nut. He jumped up, nut in mouth, on to the edge of the pot. He moved the peppered dirt from the base of a fork that was slightly further from the other forks. George used the back of his front paws to move the dirt and then quickly jumped down to the grass to wipe any Cayenne tainted dirt from his paws before it would start to burn. He jumped back up on to the edge of the pot and balanced there. He used his paws to then grip the exposed stem of the fork and pulled until it came loose and then kept pulling to get it out, carefully avoiding the spiky tines of it. Then he discarded it, cleared more dirt off the top with his paws, wiped his paws on the grass again and jumped up to begin digging in earnest. He finally tucked his nut in to the

George the Curious and Intelligent Squirrel

George the squirrel peeking his nose out to survey the traffic in his area.

pot and covered it carefully. He jumped down, satisfied and ran to the nearest tree while I stood open-mouthed at my kitchen window. I gave up then. Nothing would trick this master mind of a squirrel. He had a raccoon’s intelligence and would learn and out-smart every obstacle I put in his way. At the same time I realized I had grown to respect this rodent. He stayed out of harm’s way, out-smarted my traps and had managed to avoid dangers the other squirrels had blindly fallen in to. Plus, he never came close enough to me to bite my ankles. He gave a respectable distance between us every time we saw him pass outside. Intelligence and survival smarts (which I like to think is also good manners in a squirrel).

Although I don’t love rodents or most tiny furry rodent-like pets there is always the exception to the rule. George is one such exception. I have mad respect for intelligent and wily beings and George is one such being. Even though that’s hard to admit…..


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