He must have come in through the mail slot. I imagine him watching the mailman stride up the front steps Christmas Eve, flipping open the metal flap and thrusting the envelopes inside. The flap is propped open a smidge by the metal binder clip we use to hold outgoing mail. It is snowing — cold. To him,* this unknown land inside the mail slot must have seemed warm, inviting, perhaps full of food.
The mailman hustles down the stairs. The watcher makes his move. A quick flip of the clip, and he’s in. The mail slot’s inner door creaks closed behind him, swinging back and forth. He lands on the small table that catches the mail, sits for a minute atop the Christmas cards and grocery store ads, then looks around, stealthily.
The house is quiet. My partner Ryan and I left yesterday for Las Vegas. We turned down the heat, took out the trash, recycling, and compost. There’s not much to find.
But wait — the intruder’s eyes catch a flash of orange atop a bookshelf. Score! It’s a passel of decorative gourds, nobbled and bumpy, with rich pumpkin-like seeds inside. He scampers over, glances around once more — still nothing moves — and starts nibbling.
This is the scene we return to after four days away and a 10-hour drive home. Seeds everywhere, gourds disemboweled, a few chewed-up bus passes in the mix for good measure. And poop. Tiny brown BBs everywhere, on the coffee table, on the rug, on the floor, in the kitchen.
It has to be a squirrel, Ryan and I decide. We have a history with squirrels. They ate my corn hole beanbags when I left them outside. They sneak into our compost. They decimated our jack-o-lanterns.
We hunt for him, throwing open closet doors and peering into trash bins, but he’s nowhere to be found. The bits of gourd look dry; we decide he’s come and gone, exiting the way he entered. After a few minutes online, we convince ourselves we won’t catch hantavirus and wearily clean up bits of gourd, sanitize surfaces and collapse into bed.
Sunday is laundry day. Ryan heads downstairs to our tiny basement/laundry space, and finds himself face to face with the Eastern Fox Squirrel that invaded our home. I think they both panic, a little bit. But most troubled is the squirrel, who retreats into the crawl space above the washing machine.
We ponder what to do. We try opening the door from the laundry to outside, sprinkling a trail of crumbled Saltines up the steps and into the snow outside, a la Hansel and Gretel. (In retrospect, I don’t know why I thought that a cracker sick people prize for its bland tastelessness, would somehow entice a squirrel.)
I turn to Facebook. Friends make suggestions; seeds, nuts; peanut butter. Why didn’t I think of that? Anyone who watches Disney movies knows squirrels love nuts! I attribute my momentary inability to think like a hungry squirrel to post-holiday exhaustion, and lay out a trail of pumpkin seeds and pecans.
Then Ryan and I start to worry the food leading out the open door could become a two-way street, attracting more squirrels to come in. Plan scratched. Ryan bikes down the street to the hardware store and picks up a $30 live squirrel trap.
“It looks small,” I say.
“I thought so too, but the guy at the hardware store said to remember, squirrels are mostly fur,” he answers.
“Good point,” I say.
We bait it with peanut butter (crunchy, natch), and stick it on the floor in the laundry room. There’s so much tension, so many unanswered questions.
How long does it take for a scared squirrel to chill out enough to explore the inside of a trap and take a lick of peanut butter big enough to trigger the door’s closure?
Should we leave the house so the squirrel feels peaceful and unencumbered by our upstairs noise, which to him must seem like the stomping of giants?
If we go downstairs to check on the squirrel trap and he’s not in it, does our presence reset the squirrel’s inner clock of boldness, meaning he will take even longer to explore his way into our trap?
When Ryan goes down to check a few hours later, he sees the squirrel just outside the trap — so close! The squirrel sees him, too. Oops.
While we wait for the trap to work, I wonder other things. If the squirrel’s been in our house for three days, what’s been happening in his house? Have other squirrels been stealing his food? Will he even have a home when he is returned to the wild? The Internet has no answers.
Later that evening, we check again. This time, the squirrel’s in the trap. He’s clearly terrified; the smell of scared animal fills the room. Ryan covers the trap with a towel to calm him down; I inch close to take a look. Even though we see squirrels outside every day, there’s something different about having one up close in my home. I want to say hi, and let him know that we’re cool, even though he ate my gourds. (And possibly my cornhole bags, compost, and jack-o-lantern.)
But he’s so frightened. He rockets around tiny cage. It shakes and rattles. It’s clear that the kindest thing to do is just take him outside and let him go.
So that’s what we do. My partner sets the cage down in the snow. He opens the door. The squirrel pauses for a microsecond, just long enough for me to wonder if he’s developed some sort of rodent Stockholm syndrome.
Then, a quick rattle of the cage, and he’s gone.
*Although I refer to it as a “he” I really have no idea what gender the squirrel is.
Squirrel photo by Dawn Huczek via Flickr. Video by Stephanie Paige Ogburn.