The War of the Roses
How the Squirrel Lady almost drove me to murder.
When gardening season opened in early May, nurseries in the asphalt city of New York were crammed with apartment dwellers, a few of whom live in garden apartments with access to ground, but most of whom vent their agrarian impulses by planting in barrels, roof containers, window boxes, and those dog-littered patches of dirt surrounding trees on the city streets. By summer's end, you can see tomato plants heavy with fruit, craning their necks through the rusted railings of fire escapes.
You can also see the verminous squirrels that steal and eat those tomatoes, leaving the planting area littered with half-eaten fruit. If the gardener is lucky, the squirrel will be satisfied with one tomato and will move on. If the gardener is unlucky—as I have been in most years—the squirrel and his friends will return again and again, taking a mouthful or two from one piece of fruit after another, in a display of gluttony and waste unparalleled in the animal kingdom. From the gardener's point of view, people who feed squirrels, thus encouraging them to breed, deserve to be trussed up and caned in a public square.
Common throughout the Northeast, the eastern gray squirrel is a nuisance wherever it roams. Hunters in rural areas of New York take 850,000 of them a year, often cooking them up in a tasty stew. Hunting is illegal in New York City, which leaves the urban gardener in a perpetual fight to protect his vegetables and flowers from plunder by these pests.
I encountered the vicious side of squirrels a few years ago, when I acquired a brownstone in Brooklyn with an expansive backyard that sparked an obsession with gardening. After making the dead soil suitably habitable for plants, my fiancee and I rushed out to the nursery and returned with perhaps as many as 200 bulbs, intent on laying out hyacinth, crocuses, and tulips. Within days of planting, we noticed gaping craters in our neatly mulched beds and found the peeled skins of our bulbs piled on the patio. Soon we witnessed a vivid display of what had been happening. A big squirrel bounded into the yard, stuck his snout in the mulch, and came up with a nice, fat tulip bulb. Sitting on his haunches, he spun the bulb like a potato through his teeth, deftly shedding the skin, then ate the bulb, calmly, right there in front of us. In laying out our garden, we had unintentionally provided a smorgasbord for these bushy-tailed rats.
The only sure way to protect bulb beds is to cover them with galvanized mesh or wrap them, Cristo-like, in a heavy canvas. I considered the chain-mail option, found it ugly and expensive, and went off on a fool's errand, thinking that there was some easier way to keep the beasts at bay. Gardening columnists typically suggested methods that did not work—like blanketing the beds with red pepper—or exotic treatments that were unavailable in the city. Dotty Woodson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, for example, advised that the squirrels would be repelled by fox urine, but no such thing was available at any nursery that I could find. Another writer suggested urine of mountain lion, as though this were something you could get down at the Home Depot. Yet another writer said that squirrels were repelled by mothballs, which I guess would be fine until the wind shifted and the neighbors caught the stink of all that concentrated naphthalene. Bill Adler, the author of Outwitting Squirrels, recommends the equally implausible solution of importing families of hawks to prey on the squirrels. Clerks at the nursery assured us that squirrels would be put off by the smell of dried blood, which for the most part they were. But dried blood spread over a 100 feet of flower bed smells a bit like a slaughterhouse—and also washes away when it rains, forcing the gardener to spread more of this gory substance every few days. Some writers recommend trapping. But every time you subtract a squirrel, another arises to takes its place. Some people say that a cat patrolling the yard is just the ticket to ward off squirrels. This might work with genteel suburban squirrels, but the thuggish Brooklyn squirrels that control my block give no ground at all to the two big cats that have patrolled my yard for years. The cats step aside when they meet a squirrel traveling along the top of the fence and actually run away when an aggressive squirrel stands up on its haunches and barks.
We gave up planting bulbs after the first year and turned instead to begonias, impatiens, and marigolds. The squirrels did not eat these. But they suspected that there were bulbs—or nuts buried by other squirrels—beneath the freshly turned earth and patrolled the beds each morning, uprooting plants in search of a breakfast. Until the plants were firmly established, I spent the first half-hour of each day replacing divots in the mulch and replanting begonias, impatiens, and marigolds.
In the summer of 1999, after three years of warfare, the plague of squirrels on our block reached biblical proportions. At one point during the summer, I counted 13 of the beasts in and around the backyard at once—scampering over the lawn, trekking across the garden wall, and moving ceaselessly along the telephone lines overhead. The squirrels were growing not just more numerous, but bolder. They scampered in through open doors, begging for food right in the kitchen. A couple next door to us was burgled for more than a week by a squirrel that had sneaked into the house and taken up residence in a roll-out couch. While the couple was at work, the squirrel made sorties on a dish of cat food, deposited its droppings in the houseplants, and returned to its "den" in the couch for the night. Once the couple discovered the intruder, it took them two days to chase it out.
The plague seemed solely an act of nature until I noticed a huge, somber woman on a back deck several doors down, feeding squirrels—as they crawled around on her arms and shoulders. I had heard of people who adopted squirrels as pets, but this was the first time I had actually witnessed it firsthand. The Squirrel Lady dispensed peanuts by the pound, which the animals deposited in specially dug holes in gardens and window boxes all up and down the block. Squirrels seeking a handout converged on our block from all over Brooklyn, trooping in procession along the wires, and returning to bury their booty in our garden, where rival squirrels soon arrived to dig it up. As the Squirrel Lady stepped up her feeding, the grays took up residence in nearby trees and even chewed through the roof into a neighbor's attic. When the neighbors complained, the Squirrel Lady responded that she had a right to feed squirrels if she wished to and that no harm could come of it. But as the tulip gardener next door put it, "The peanuts are the main course, but my tulips are the dessert." He watched, depressed, as the squirrels ate every tulip blossom, every year. Besieged by more squirrels than ever and sick of playing the patsy, I laid out this year's garden with no edibles at all and a humane trap at the ready. I considered erecting a small tent in my yard to serve as a squirrel death chamber. After trapping them, I would drown as many as possible by submerging the cage in a galvanized washtub—though inside the tent, to keep the slaughter from public view.
I am pleased to report that things got better before execution became necessary. Within days of setting out this year's garden I noticed that few if any plants were being uprooted and that the squirrel colony had shrunk by about half. I had dared to plant tulips, and every single one survived. The telephone lines that had served as a crowded highway for squirrels were blessedly empty. Asking around, I found that the Squirrel Lady had sold her house and moved on. Before leaving, she had offered her favorite pet squirrels to neighbors—who politely declined—whereupon she packed them up in cat cages and decamped for the suburbs. I have no idea which suburb. But if you find your neighborhood besieged by a plague of squirrels, you will know to raise an electric fence around your tulips.
Brent Staples is on the editorial board of the New York Times and is a member of Slate's book-reviewing team.