When rodents crash your quarantine: Relocate or exterminate?

A squirrel family delivers a powerful reminder

25 Nov 2020 | 11:46

Last March 5th, two days after my kids’ school in the Bronx shut its doors, I arrived at The Farm with the family to quarantine. We walked in the door and I immediately heard the footsteps across the kitchen ceiling. I froze in focus. My German Shepherd ears extended. My ears were literally three inches from the ceiling of this circa 1865 farmhouse.

Where is this critter going? How quick? What size feet make that sound?

Breathe. Impulse control. With that breath, I accepted another unplanned reality — having another “family” quarantining with us at The Farm. I told the boys to be on the listen for critters running between the first and second floors. Refocused, we unpacked the rest of the car.

The next night, priorities of protecting my family shifted again. We had just sat down to dinner when my wife, Babette, heard something run toward the bathroom. I froze. Ears up. Staring at each other with silence and listening. I heard it again.

Targeted. The creature was in the bathroom behind the wall next to this old circuit breaker with already detached wires. Then came the sound of the top front teeth of a large vermin gnawing on old wood and wires. The vibrations reminded me of the “heavy impact” drill dentists give an extra warning about.

These animals had to leave. We were safe from Covid, but chewing on live wires results in a burning old farmhouse. Failing wasn’t an option.

In game-time situations, decisions are simplified: Do I relocate or exterminate?

I’d prefer to relocate them.

First off, I grew up roaming this property, mostly alone since age five. This place taught me about my maker, the reality that I am a creature in this world among many creatures, and there is a cosmic alignment and respect between all of us that I call “Nature Karma.”

This property is in Lenape territory on the top of a Pocono mountain close to the Delaware River. “The Farm,” purchased by my father in 1969 with a back-of-napkin bank loan, was last used commercially in the 1950s to raise Black Angus steer. It’s no longer a working farm. In any case, Nature Karma or not, I’m the caretaker now, and I hate dealing with dead animals.

Recon was activated immediately. Over the next four weeks, I learned we had a squirrel family, their feeding and “work” schedule. They were out from literally dawn to dusk. Not too different from my work schedule.

The point of egress was found. There was a hole where the old and less-old additions meet. I focused on shutting down this Grand Central Station. I clogged the hole with spray foam and rocks. It worked, and I walked into the house a champion. Babette handed off five-month-old Hannah Banana as a trophy.

That’s when another unforgettable sound stopped me: squealing desperation. Now we had crying babies separated from their mother. Nature Karma — here it is. Another decision. Allow for relocation or do nothing and extermination happens by closing awareness.

I gave Hannah back to Babette and reopened the hole. Their rush-hour scramble ensued, and the babies were fed.

Trapping started mid-March. I had three Havahart traps. The bears mangled one. That’s how I learned not to leave feeders or traps with peanut butter out overnight.

Another trap was too small. I was down to one. My Rube Goldberg strategy was to use the bird feeders to seed the traps. I placed the trap with its mesh metal holes under the feeder with the black sunflower seeds. These seeds were like Reese’s peanut butter cups for squirrels. As the early morning birds ate, the seeds would shake free into the trap below.

Once caught, the squirrels were relocated down the hill, across the highway next to the river. They would have to frogger back home if they wanted to return. Over the next month I got most of them.

We were down to three: two “toddlers” and the mother. James, my 10-year-old, came in and interrupted a training I was leading to let me know we got “Mama Chungus.” He was right.

As I picked up the trapped mother and marched to my truck to continue Operation Relocate, she let loose a squeal that once again stopped me. Holding the trap in one hand, I looked down at the creature’s belly, her four paws reaching for the corners. There were eight teats, ready for use.

Creature to creature. She had mouths to feed. Without much thought, I put the trap down and let her out.

Operation Relocate was never-ending. How much bandwidth and overall energy would I have to sink into relocating these squirrels? Did they know I was also balancing keeping my family healthy and growing, finding time to work and giving Babette time to do what she needed?

I started to reconsider relocation over extermination. I was hearing the loud voices of “You are man. This world was given to you. Own it. Next time you catch the animal, stick the trap in the water.”

Early April: I found another point of egress. The family had stopped using the original entrance when I flooded Grand Central with foam and rocks, only to sidestep over to Penn Station, a vent in the back of the house. With recon cameras repositioned, I watched the remaining squirrels come and go.

Finally, it was time. These guys were big enough. I needed this energy and focus invested elsewhere.

Using zip ties and chicken wire, I covered their back door while they were out. I tightened the vent closed and kept the camera about five feet away. The trio returned. I could sense anger, but after a few minutes, they accepted their door was locked.

What happened next amazed me. Here’s what they did upon recognizing they had outgrown their farm house.

1. They accepted reality and looked around.
2. Seeming to recognize they were being watched, they went for the cameras.
3. Their actions turned the cameras around to face the other way. The cameras weren’t knocked down; they were turned 180 degrees.

I could take it as an F.U. or a thank you. I’m going to choose to see this as an acknowledgment of respecting creature-to-creature Nature Karma.

Dan Greenwald splits his time between New York City and the family farm in Westfall Township, PA. He is the founder of ThirtyTenZero, a framework designed to help you tap your inner power.