Why you should care
Because no one wants to hit a squirrel. Sometimes it just happens.
Elisabeth Dahl is a writer and an illustrator living in Baltimore. Her work has also appeared on NPR.org, at the Rumpus, in Johns Hopkins Magazine and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter: @ElisabethDahl
Every autumn, as Starbucks pimps the pumpkin spice latte and women rush for their knee-high boots, I revisit my own fall ritual: worrying about killing squirrels. All around my leafy Baltimore neighborhood, acorns are plunking out of trees, and squirrels are chasing them down.
I live in what feels like especially high-traffic squirrel territory and am constantly reminded of John Crowe Ransom’s poem “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” — in particular, the line about the geese scuttling “goose-fashion under the skies.” The squirrels are scuttling, squirrel-fashion, every which way: across lawns, beds of mulch, back decks, front porches and, of course, roadways.
But now go the bells, and we are ready,
In one house we are sternly stopped
To say we are vexed at her brown study,
Lying so primly propped.
— John Crowe Ransom, “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter ”
Behind the wheel, I hold my breath, always afraid that a bushy-tailed rodent will end up with my tire treads on its back. “First do no harm” is a good principle for life in general, not just for those who practice medicine. But eight or nine times a day, a zinging squirrel will threaten to make me break that oath. As the bodies that litter our neighborhood streets would indicate, a nut-mad squirrel isn’t a sound decision-maker.
And so it was, in this tender state of mind, that a maimed squirrel came into my life, waiting on my welcome mat as I returned from a midday grocery run. His front half was perfectly intact and motile. But below the waist — do squirrels have waists? — his body dragged. Ugh, I thought: A car had gotten him, but incompletely. As I approached, the squirrel high-tailed it — as much as a half-paralyzed squirrel can, anyway — back under our deck. There he rested, clicking loudly at me. He was not just hurt, he was incensed.
Remembering how squirrels had nibbled our pumpkins in the past, I left him one of the small gourds I’d just bought. Then I hung a towel to block my dogs’ view out the back window. A dying squirrel didn’t need to hear the sharp barks of my squirrel-fixated terrier. By midafternoon, to my surprise, things were looking up. The squirrel was out and scampering about. Short of his lower half, he looked just like any other squirrel in the world. You go, squirrel! I thought.
Short of his lower half, he looked just like any other squirrel in the world.
Another hour passed, and things took a turn for the worse. The squirrel was back on the welcome mat, only this time he was folded up into himself like a jelly roll. Flies circled his head in slow orbit. It was hard not to think of Ransom’s elegy again; here was my own vexing brown study. A bit later, the squirrel had vanished from the welcome mat. I imagined him getting spirited off in a hawk’s talons. It was the way of the world, I told myself. R.I.P., squirrel.
But again the squirrel proved me wrong. Against all odds, he appeared after dinner, gamely moving across our deck. My husband, Rick, now home as well, started looking up wildlife rehabilitation facilities, one of which instructed him to prepare a cardboard box with a bed of torn paper towels. He walked proudly into the yard with a plastic shovel, for scooping. But he couldn’t find the squirrel. By this time, violet was pooling in the sky, and we turned on the floodlights, hoping the squirrel would emerge. Rick sat quietly outside with a beer and a book. But an hour later, still no squirrel.
“Drop it,” I ordered, and he obliged — almost gratefully, it seemed.
Before sunrise the next morning, I went outside in slippers and took a peek. No luck. The box sat empty, its downy paper-towel carpet now covered in dew. Where was the squirrel?
That afternoon, our terrier answered the question. He stuck his snout under the shed, then tunneled in. When he emerged, his mouth held a squirrel head and dragged a limp gray body. The dog’s eyes were wild. “Drop it,” I ordered, and he obliged — almost gratefully, it seemed. It was more than he or I had bargained for.
I’m back on the roads now, back on the deck, watching the nut-mad squirrels ping from lawn to tree to street like pinballs. Soon, frost and snow will still the squirrels. But until then, I’m behind the wheel, holding my breath.