On Squirrels and Raccoons

by

Howard Adelman

When I looked out the front window yesterday, on our front lawn I saw a small black squirrel with a very long and full bushy tail that was more gray than black. He – though it could have been a she – was moving in frantic spurts with his nose to the ground possibly looking for grubs or insects to eat after a long and very hard winter — but perhaps just trying to scent the nuts he hid so long ago. Are squirrels vegetarians? Every little while – possibly every minute or so – he would stand on his hind haunches, very erect, sniff the air and after a few seconds of looking around with his very large but also soft eyes, resume his frantic searches. Looking at his erect posture from the front seemed to confirm that he was a male since he lacked the obvious nipples of a lactating mother in the spring. But I could not see his scrotum so I could not be sure. In any case, for some reason I always think of squirrels as male. His movements to my untrained eye seemed both very erratic and frenetic. Further, there was no sign that he had found any food. Nor when he stood up and looked about did there appear any signs of danger. Here was a rodent, a close neighbour, whom I knew virtually nothing about but rather cherished.

I have lived beside these squirrels on this street for almost fifty years. I have never fed them nor chased them nor even much attended to them. Their antics, however, often delight me and I do not even know why. They seem so different from the grey squirrels of the English animal fables I read about to my children when they were very young. Those squirrels were often given anthropomorphized characteristics of prudence and care, hard work and planning, and very proficient child rearing. My squirrels seem such loners except when they are playing or chasing one another up and down tree branches and even sometimes fighting. But mostly I see them looking for the nuts they had hidden and, contrary to the rumour that they never forget, always seemed to have forgotten where they have hidden their stores. They seem to be frantic with forgetfulness, desperate to remember and find what for them was hidden at a time that must seem eons ago. They just cannot seem to find where they have stored their nuts. I totally empathize with them. One day I expect to be surprised and actually see them finding a cache they have hidden. I have not been lucky enough thus far.

Yet they must find them. They – or the raccoons – have dug up so much of the garden. Raccoons are the real culprits in digging up the lawns as you can see when you get up in the morning. For squirrels have the day shift. There are little pockets of upturned grass everywhere. If squirrels are the culprits, I want to buy them a direction finder. When the squirrels are together and chasing one another, I am never sure whether they are engaged in a game of tag or they are in a fight, though sometimes it is clear when the climbing is more frenetic than ever and sometimes accompanied by a kind of screeching. Certainly, when the chase ends in a wrestling match – fortunately it rarely does – they do not seem to be just fooling around. The fighting is then too aggressive. But how do you tell when a male is chasing and fighting off a rival and when a male is chasing a female determined to pounce upon her? Perhaps, the latter is the real wrestling, for usually when two are fighting, one quickly leaves the field of battle so the chase is very short.

I wish I could understand the different sounds they make, but I have no clue as to what they are communicating. Who are their natural enemies? We once had a cat called Turk who was brilliant at catching mice, including field mice, but also birds – much to our distress. But I do not think he tried to get squirrels. Certainly there was no evidence of any success and that may be proof of the futility he might have experienced if he had tried. So who eats squirrels? If they have a couple of litters of a couple of babies each year, why aren’t we totally overrun with squirrels? I see very few corpses of squirrels who have been run over when hit by a car when trying to dart across the street. Does anyone know? Do they die from disease or starvation over the long cold winter?

In any case, because we live in a virtual oak forest recently being rapidly depleted as the two-hundred year old oaks have reached their life span, we have a super abundance of squirrels but not nearly as many as one might expect. I love watching them for their agility and acrobatic abilities. Who or what else can run down a very tall tree head first? Their bodies are light and lithe and their movements are so varied alternating from a scurry to racer with spiderman great leaps. I have never caressed a squirrel but their fur looks like silk. The squirrel may be a rodent but I welcome their presence in the neighbourhood.

This is not true of raccoons. Before Passover, I was cleaning out our long shed, partly in the annual spring clean up and partly to retrieve items stored there for the spring season, when in the corner I spied the small beady eyes, masked face and small head of a raccoon peaking out over the top of a bunch of items piled in the corner. I screamed to everyone to come and see the baby raccoon trapped behind items in the corner of the shed. He kept looking directly at me and never once averted his gaze. As everyone raced in and as I removed boxes to let him escape, out came a very large and fat racoon who waddled off indifferent to all the fuss. It was no baby as my children mockingly reminded me. Having fed on garbage all winter, the raccoons emerge in the spring as fat or fatter than ever. I think their heads must stay the same size all their lives and are disproportionately small relative to their large bodies – the opposite of humans.

Raccoons are about twice the length of squirrels but must weigh four or five times as much. Do raccoons eat squirrels? Though small heads are supposed to indicate brain size and, hence, intelligence, raccoons are among the smartest animals that I have met. They have learned to open our shed drawers and take the lids off the garbage containers with their sharp claws and dexterous paws. We have tried clamps, piled on heavy stones, but they outsmart me every time — though a new formula does work for a very short time. They are very quick learners. And once they learn, they remember. The city advice to “secure garbage in durable plastic containers with locking lids” has been studied thoroughly by the raccoons and is the source of greatest amusement for them. I have never seen a flashlight, a motion light sensor or a noise that disturbed them in the least. They are seemingly fearless and indifferent to humans.

Actually, their forays into the garbage cans bother me much less than the frenetic fights they sometimes get into. They seem very vicious then to one another and one time, one raccoon was pummelled off a roof and we had to call the humane society to put him down because he was so badly injured. When I lived next door, I looked out my study window over a flat roof on which a full family of raccoons usually lived – two parents and usually two young ones. I could watch them go about their business. They also watched me with unembarrassed insouciance through the window as I worked on my computer or read. They must have read the rules of the City of Toronto which allegedly – according to the removal experts hired to trap them when they get inside the house – allow trapping raccoons but do not allow their removal from their foraging area. If they get into your attic or storage area, they can be removed but must be released – or so the many advertisers of raccoon removal experts tell us. Perhaps that is just to ensure repeat business. So when you call a local animal control agency, you can only expect to shift the problem slightly, not eliminate it. Safety and humane treatment of raccoons is the mantra of these agencies. Raccoons have rights that our homeless on the streets do not have.

Recently, I did learn that that the rules of protecting raccoons are only partially true. I found out that you can actually hunt them and, as of this year, you do not even need a license to do so. Reading that news story earlier this year confirmed the scepticism I always had about the humane motives of the removal experts. For, if a raccoon is damaging your property – or even if you just want to sell his pelt for $25 or eat the gamey meat – you can kill them. It is too bad I am such a wimp!

I will continue to clean up the messes they leave behind.

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