Squirrel Trouble

County Lines; Squirrel Trouble
New York Times Article
January 6, 2002
By Gabrielle Glaser

When I moved here from Washington, five summers ago, I was surprised to find that my old house in Pelham, an easy jog from the Bronx border, had some extra boarders. A skunk lived under the porch, and raccoons were so accustomed to feasting on our garbage that they viewed me as the nuisance. Whenever I’d stomp onto the deck with a flashlight, they’d look at me blankly, then scamper away — only to return a few moments after I had gotten back into bed. (Both disappeared shortly after the neighbor got a dog, and we got a cat.)

But no deterrent, canine or feline, proved fearsome enough for the squirrels that run rampant here. At some point in the last year or so, they crossed the line from bulb thieves to flat-out pests. They went from scurrying on the roof to actually gnawing holes in it, burrowing deep within my walls and into mind-boggling earshot at about 3 each afternoon. My pricey roofer hammered copper over holes in the gutters here and there. No luck: when the scratching in the walls returned as the weather turned cold, he told me I’d need a trapper. Somehow, I had a hard time conjuring the rugged trappers of my youth — I grew up on an Oregon farm, where they wore plaid lumberjack coats — in Pelham, where pizzerias, at first glance, appear to outnumber people.

As it turns out, it’s squirrels that outnumber people, by a longshot. Jim Dreisacker, who runs Westchester Wildlife Control in Brewster, called Pelham ”the Squirrel Capital of the U.S.” (Somehow, this salient fact is absent from the real estate brochures.) Anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 squirrels make their home in Pelham, along with 12,000 bipedal residents. The number stems in part from the wisdom of the architects who designed the town in the 19th century. They left in place the ancient oaks that make Pelham and the quaint villages near it ”leafy suburbs,” but their acorns attract squirrels in huge numbers. Most old homes here have wooden trim, which is now so dry that it is easy to chew through. ”It’s the perfect squirrel setup,” Mr. Dreisacker said.

The setup was put in motion centuries ago, when this swath of land was nothing but old-growth forest. In the early 1600’s, its primary inhabitants, minks and beavers, attracted Dutch traders, who traded goods for pelts with local Indians. Soon, the animals were overhunted, and forests were felled to make way for farms. The population grew, first drawing wealthy industrialists and, later, new suburbanites who whizzed from their homes to postwar factories on the parkways that sliced up the county. Through it all, squirrels flourished.Their homely fur had safeguarded them from fashion, and their natural predators had fled upstate.

Extracting such tenacious creatures, I am learning, won’t be simple. Even if I did manage to batten down my roof, the squirrels would find another way to enter the den. It is now laden with pheromones, odorless chemicals that attract members of the same species. Often, pheromones serve as genetic markers for families; signs of who has ”friendly” DNA. Without getting rid of the entire colony, I’ll never get rid of the problem — and if I ignore it, it’ll only get worse. Squirrels have two to six young twice a year; the pheromones they leave behind could serve as a lure to squirrels for generations.

Quotes from various trappers put the fee for baiting the squirrels, releasing them in the wild, and replacing the trim at around $2,000. What? I know what ”releasing in the wild” means: hawks and owls will get them in no time. (Another option, according to the Internet, is to put up horned-owl decoys; not exactly a look I’m after.)

Couldn’t we just skip a step, and — well, to mix animal metaphors, make sure the squirrels sleep with the fishes directly?

As it turns out, no. My unsentimental frontier view of nuisance animals, formed by foxes and coyotes that decimated sheep herds, does not apply in Westchester.

First, it’s against state law to trap to kill healthy animals, said Carlos Cruz, a trapper with AM Pest Control in Yonkers. Mr. Cruz was stunned to hear me talk as I had, and I got a little embarrassed. I shouldn’t be blaming the squirrels, he said. ”They’re just doing what they do best. It’s not their fault you moved into their territory. Don’t get mad at the darn animal.” He paused. ”I would never hurt an animal unless it was sick or injured,” he said. ”I’m a vegetarian.”

Article published in the New York Times