I live in a tiny village in southwestern Ontario, with about 400 other residents. It’s a quiet place, bounded on all sides by rolling hills, pasture and stands of hardwood. Nature lovers do well here, as the air and waters are unpolluted, and sightings of hawks, deer, groundhogs and coyotes are common. I love the wildlife. Let me qualify that: I love the wildlife when it is outdoors.
I heat my home with a very efficient wood stove in my basement. In early March, we had a warm spell, so I hadn’t used the stove for a few days. When I heard noises in the chimney pipe, I’d assumed it was birds trying to build a nest at the top of the pipe. Hoping to encourage the birds to find a more suitable home, I opened the stove door and burned pieces of paper. When the noises subsided, I left the door open and went upstairs.
Soon after, a very large black squirrel came down the chimney, hopped out of the wood stove and began running around downstairs. I grabbed my Yorkie, whose terrier instincts would get her into trouble, stashed her in the bathroom for her own safety, and ventured into the basement with a broom. I spied the squirrel—healthy, agile, fearless—and it spied me. The chase was on.
I yelled and swatted as the squirrel scrambled over the bar and unsuccessfully tried to get into the cupboards. He tore across a long harvest table, knocking over a vase and a cup, and then dove behind the couch. At one point, we exchanged vocal insults—mine outraged, the squirrel’s suspiciously taunting. Two fruitless turns round the basement convinced me that I was not on the right track, so I phoned my helpful neighbour.
In a small village, everyone knows “The Guy,” someone who can solve your problems. Sure enough, my neighbour knew someone with a trap. Soon after, three men arrived with lots of stories about catching squirrels. After baiting the trap, they set it in a space near the couch, hoping it would entice the squirrel. They found the situation very amusing, and perhaps it was their excited laughter that discouraged the squirrel from coming out. They left. I waited. The squirrel was not in the least bit interested in climbing into the trap.
After some time, the squirrel darted from the couch to a wood crib located in the hallway next to the wood stove. I moved the trap nearby. When nothing happened over the next hour, I called my partner, John, and he said he’d come over to try to catch the squirrel. He pooh-poohed my plan that together we could herd it upstairs and out the door. I suggested a few more plans, violent ones that would end badly for the squirrel, but John quickly declared that he didn’t want to be party to injuring or killing an animal.
While I waited for him to arrive, I tried my hand at herding. Upstairs, I propped open the front door, the side door and two patio doors. Cold air poured into the house. I rattled the wood in the crib, and the squirrel popped out of its hiding place. I charged after it, waving my broom, trying to persuade it to go up the stairs to freedom. Round and round we went, but he was having none of it. He took cover again in the wood crib. Exhausted, I grabbed the trap, retreated up the stairs and closed all the doors.
John arrived and constructed a fortress in my hallway downstairs, a true MacGyver solution. He had brought a bifold door. Stretching it across the opening, he held it in place with logs, two chairs and the vacuum cleaner. The doors from the hall to the bathroom and bedroom were closed. John also placed a recycling bin, a small dog carrier and several sheets throughout the room. He arranged small piles of logs around the floor, hoping the squirrel would try to hide there, where it could easily be caught.
I squeezed out of the fortress and sat on the stairs, listening to the commentary and ready to swat at the squirrel if it escaped the barriers. John quickly spotted the beady little eyes halfway down the wood crib, and called out that he was going to use the old “deer-in-the-headlights” method, shining a flashlight into the rodent’s eyes to keep it transfixed until enough pieces of wood could be removed to expose it. He carefully removed logs one layer at a time until he was one log above it. Removing the last log, John grabbed the squirrel with a gloved hand.
The squirrel twisted out of his hand and shot across the hallway, careening from wall to wall, then diving into one of the smaller piles of logs. Again, John tried to grab it, but it got away. Suddenly, the squirrel ran toward him, leaping straight up, grabbing his beard and pulling itself up onto his head. I heard a scream and a curse. “The #%&$ squirrel jumped onto my head!”
Then some serious swearing began, and a lot of other strange noises. John was tossing logs and flailing the sheets at the squirrel as it flew around the room. The dog carrier was on the floor with its door open. Suddenly, the rodent dove into it. John fumbled with the door, but it broke off, so he picked up the carrier, shaking it to keep the rodent at the bottom, then pressed the open end against a wall. He yelled for me to find something that we could hold over the opening. I brought some cardboard, and between the two of us, we slid it across the open end, and John was able to take the carrier upstairs and out the door.
John was determined that this bushy-tailed rat was not going to come back to my house again. He went out into the cold night without a coat or boots, walked to the end of my street, and then another block to the main road, passing the community centre. Three men leaving the centre paused to give him funny looks. Without breaking stride, John called out, “I’m just walking my squirrel.” Crossing the main road, he intended to release the squirrel near some pine trees. But before he could do that, his left leg sank thigh deep in the snow and he fell backward, still holding on to the end of the carrier. He says he had a vision of the squirrel escaping and running up his sleeve, but, in fact, he struggled to his feet, took the carrier over to the pine trees and let the squirrel go.
Starting back toward my house, in the dark, with no cars or people around, John had walked for less than five minutes when suddenly a black squirrel passed by. He said it was trotting along energetically on a determined path toward my street. When it reached the corner, the squirrel climbed a tree on the property of the first house. John turned the corner and tore past, speeding for my house.
By then, I was worried, as he’d been gone for a while. I opened the door and yelled into the dark, “John!” A far-off voice replied, “Quiet! I think he’s following me!” I thought John was kidding, but when he finally slid through the door, he told me the whole story. By the next morning, the sounds of squirrel activity could be heard once more upon the roof.
A photojournalist’s reflections, 30 years later.