I killed my first squirrel last year.
Squirrels and I have an adversarial history. I’m not one of those strange people who find squirrels adorable, who create a market for fuzzy squirrel stuffed animals and children’s books starring wide-eyed squirrel protagonists. In my opinion, squirrels are pests, bothersome rodents who are spared widespread extermination only by their fuzzy tails.
I don’t trust those tails.
Squirrels respond to my dislike by acting…squirrelly. They skitter through my yard and across my roof. They leap across perilously thin tree branches, littering the grass with acorns. They make nests in the attic and attempt to burrow under the chicken yard fence. In all of this, they show very little fear of me.
I don’t trust wild animals that aren’t afraid of me.
This started a couple of decades ago, when I attended a high school summer enrichment program at the University of Richmond in Virginia. I’d never paid squirrels any mind before that summer, but there was something decidedly off about those Richmond squirrels. I can only assume that many had been the victims of fraternity hazing rituals; all of them had a slightly crazed look in their eyes, and several were missing patches of fur – whether from mange or the razors of frat boys, I never knew. One particularly horrifying squirrel had lost all the hair on its tail – visual proof that a fuzzy tail is all that separates squirrels from rats.
And those squirrels had no fear – NO FEAR – of people. Anybody in their right mind would’ve been terrified at the throngs of overachieving high school students who ranged the campus that summer, but not the squirrels. Oh no; when they saw a pack of teens headed their way, those squirrels raised their tails and charged.
True story. And it made a lifelong squirrel hater of me. (Don’t laugh – it’s a real condition. The technical term is “sciurophobia.”)
I was able to avoid close contact with squirrels for most of my adult life by living in urban areas. Then, we chose to settle in Vermont. In the woods.
Now, I’m surrounded by squirrels all day. Fortunately, there’s so much else happening in these woods that the squirrels aren’t very interested in me. But last year, starting around Labor Day and lasting throughout early fall, I noticed something about my local squirrels: they were becoming roadkill in record numbers. For a couple of months, I couldn’t turn a corner without seeing yet another dead squirrel. They were flattened in the middle of the road, lying lifeless on the shoulder, a squirrel massacre on every byway in Addison County.
It was during this season of dead squirrels that I killed my first squirrel.
It was an accident; despite my anti-squirrel rhetoric, I’m strictly an armchair squirrel antagonist. It happened as I was driving my daughter to preschool. I’ve since learned that squirrels first respond to predators by freezing, and then by running in all directions to create confusion. While this strategy might work on cats, it’s not much good on cars. I abruptly stopped the car when I saw a squirrel crossing the road (which I could do safely because I was on a back road in Vermont). In response, the squirrel froze in front of my car. I attempted to scare the squirrel across the road by driving forward a bit, at which point the squirrel started running in all directions – including under my wheel.
I felt terrible. I was sure that the squirrel had friends, a family, someone waiting back in the nest. Maybe it was a mother squirrel getting acorns for her babies. Maybe that squirrel was just like me.
To make matters worse, I had to drive past the squirrel’s corpse after dropping my daughter off, and again – TWICE – when I went to pick her up.
This September, when the local roads again became squirrel killing fields, I did a little research. Here’s what I learned about the Eastern Gray Squirrel: The new litters of squirrels are born in August and September, and their mothers abandon them after they’re weaned at 8 or 9 weeks. Also in September, a process called the “fall reshuffle” begins, in which yearlings set out to establish their own territories. So in early fall, hundreds of baby and adolescent squirrels are striking out on their own. And often, whether from lack of experience or basic probability, they’re struck.
Here’s what else I learned: Sometimes, when you consider some creature pesky or scary or squirrelly, and you think, “I wish they were dead!” – you probably don’t. Not really.
But I’m not quite ready to get cozy with the squirrels, because I also learned this: in March 2011, a rogue squirrel attacked three people in Bennington, VT. True story – made national news.
So be careful out on those roads, especially in the morning and evening hours during early fall. Also, watch your back. Don’t hit or be hit, that’s my new motto.
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, three young daughters, one adorable puppy — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.