This is the story of a cross-species battle, of antagonism tempered by empathy, curiosity, and, yes, even respect. The title is an homage to a Godzilla film of a similar name (www.rottentomatoes.com/m/godzilla_resurgence/).
It all started with a new car. In August 2015 I became the proud owner of a baby blue VW Beetle convertible. It is perhaps shallow, but nonetheless true: I love this car. The convertible top is cream colored and the car is a lovely light blue. Mr Spock stands on my dashboard presiding over beach stones with his tricorder.
By April 2016 the Beetle had accumulated 10,000 miles, so I made an appointment with the VW dealer for a 10,000-mile oil change. I drove the car there, borrowed one of their loaners for the rest of the day, and drove away. Maybe 10 minutes later my phone rang. The VW service agent asked, “Ma’am, have you driven through a pile of leaves recently?” Of course not. “Did any of the dashboard lights go on when you were driving here?” No, no lights, no sounds, nothing. “Well, you better come back right away and see what’s under your hood,” he said. So I drove back to the dealer, to find my Beetle parked close to the service entrance with the hood up and several men gathered around it, peering into the engine. “There’s a huge nest in here,” one of them said, as he pulled out a few large sticks and a bunch of leaves and grass. “Must be a squirrel.” And so it began.
It was indeed a huge nest, but there were no critters in it at the moment. Unfortunately, when they cleaned out the leaves and grass and checked the wires and connections beneath it, the squirrel had not only made a nice bed, it had satiated its appetite to the tune of $1400 worth of wires, covers, and relays. I called the insurance company to make arrangements, and the VW dealer said the car would be ready in about a week. I kept the loaner, a red Jetta.
About 3 days later I was at a local farm picking up some cider. It occurred to me that it might be a good idea to check under the hood of the Jetta loaner, just for the hell of it. You guessed it. There was the beginning of another nest. I called the dealer. This time they didn’t sound very friendly. “You’d better get the car back here immediately,” the customer service representative said, exasperation and blame in his voice. When I parked the Jetta next to the service entrance, the service guys again gathered around the engine. The service manager was pretty worked up. I would be liable for anything over $125 on the loaner, he said. David came to pick me up and we drove down the road to a car rental place to get a car for a weekend trip I had to make. The dealer called to say the damage on the Jetta was minimal enough not to charge me, but they sounded pissed off, like somehow I had been negligent about warding off Squirrelzilla after the first attack on the Beetle. Like I’d grown complacent and lazy. “Maybe there’s something wrong with VWs,” I countered, feeling sure of myself. Our other household cars–my son’s 1996 Volvo and David’s Mini–were completely untouched. Or so I thought.
That night after work, we checked the Mini, a car David drives every day. We opened the hood with confidence. You see where this is going. Another nest, and more chewing. The chewing looked like it was centered on only the hood baffling and one connection–the wiper fluid hose. We were floored. We called the Mini dealer, and they promised to send out a tow truck. Several hours later, the tow truck arrived. David was talking at length with the driver, a burly young guy who listened with weed-fueled calm to the serial tale of squirrel woes. “Well, you’ve got a pregnant female,” he said, like it was the most natural, obvious conclusion one could arrive at. “Oh, yeah,” he said, “and she’s going to keep building and building nests until she has the babies.” He recounted his boyhood summers on his grandfather’s South Jersey farm, where they had built nesting boxes for the mother squirrels to have their babies in, and as a boy he watched the mother and babies through a clear panel his grandad made for the purpose. “They were really good mothers,” he said with some emotion, and I had more than a twinge of guilt about the unfortunate, misunderstood, pregnant mother squirrel, about to burst, who keeps building nests that the humans keep destroying, and all she wants to do is just give birth to a bunch of baby squirrels. There was a certain unspoken female understanding going on here. I’d been there twice. She’s there now. Like Godzilla, Squirrelzilla was misunderstood. And Squirrelzilla was a she. So the idea of building a birthing chamber for her sounded appealing on many levels. We had a clear plastic box with a lid that we filled with grass, bird seed, and sticks, and we cut an opening in the side and placed it near the driveway and under a bush. The Mini was towed away and repaired for about $400, which we did not notify the insurance company about.
A week after the first Squirrelzilla incident, the Beetle was ready for pickup from the VW dealer. The nesting box was unused. Still, after retrieving the Beetle and leaving $250 at the dealer for the copayment, at first I parked the Beetle across the street, believing naively that it would keep the car squirrel free. I reasoned that by now the nest-building mother in need of a place to have her babies must be done with the task, so the whole thing was probably over. We grew complacent. Sometimes I parked back in the driveway.
A few weeks went by. One night in May, we set out to attend a graduation. Our neighbor across the street, who has an older VW Beetle convertible, motioned us over. He told us that the engine of his Beetle, which was garaged, had also been used to build a squirrel nest. That squirrel was a bit more aesthetically oriented as she had taken pieces of cloth and small items from his workbench and tool box and placed them in the nest. Squirrelzilla was not done.
Not at all. Over the next 2 weeks I repeatedly found the beginning of nests in the Beetle many times. I was compulsively checking the engine several times a day. It got so crazy that even if I checked the engine, found nothing, ran an errand, returned home, and parked, an hour later, a quick check under the hood would reveal another nest was under way. How could the nest be created so quickly?? So I’d remove the nest. Soon the insurgency reached a new level. One day I came out of the house and saw a squirrel’s tail hanging out of the bottom of the Beetle’s front grill. It didn’t move around, just hung there. I couldn’t tell if it was alive or dead, so I got a broom and banged on the front grill. The tail moved and sounds erupted in response to each tap on the grill. Call and response. I opened the hood. Sure enough, there was a new nest in the same spot, and a squirrel ran out the bottom of the engine and away across the lawn. A few seconds later two small squirrels also ran out the bottom. But there was still a squirrel or two left inside when I again smacked the grille with the broom. Smack, gurgle; smack, gurgle. I propped the hood open and went in the house to have a tantrum.
David went outside and stood in front of the car. He returned inside to report that the mother squirrel was up in the tree “yelling” at him. As he has been known to believe and repeat entirely unsupportable statements about animal behavior and biology, I went to the door to verify his statement. It was no lie. The mother was not too far up the tree next to the driveway, looking right at us and making persistent quarrelsome noises that stopped whenever we retreated into the house. We spied on her through the front window. After a short time she ran down the tree and stood a few feet from the car, standing up on her back legs, completely still, and checking in our direction; every few seconds she moved closer to the car until she was again right next to it. Then she did something we couldn’t believe we were seeing: she reappeared on the top of the engine carrying a baby squirrel. With a tremendous show of strength, she kept struggling to grab the baby. She held it in her mouth by its scruff and repeatedly tossed the bulk of the baby’s body over her shoulder. Finally, she got it the way she wanted and ran across the street with the baby, pausing every few meters to rest, and finally disappearing at the far end of a neighbor’s lawn. A few minutes later, she returned, and repeated the whole process with another baby. We were speechless. I guess the farm boy was right; she really was a good mother.
Yet again I cleaned the new nest out of the car, left the hood propped open, and surveyed the engine for damage. Not seeing anything obvious, I gathered anew things I’d been told would ward off squirrels–a tarp under the engine on which anti-varmint pellets were spread; mothballs; two HavaHart traps, loaded with fruit and nuts. And whenever I wasn’t driving and it wasn’t raining, I left the hood up. I became obsessed. constantly checking under the hood and worrying about the next attack. There were times when I opened the hood to find the beginning of a new grass nest, but I didn’t see any squirrels and there was nothing in the Havahart traps.
David usually parked the Mini across the street each evening when he came home from work. We checked it as often as we remembered and it seemed fine. Then one day I saw a squirrel run under it and not come out. I called to David that we should check the engine even though it had been parked for only an hour or so. He opened the hood and there it was–a new, lush, grassy nest, and this time a big squirrel was sitting right on top of the engine block. As our hysteria level was elevated, the picture below is the best we could muster. Look on the right side of the engine.
We screamed and stepped backwards as the squirrel ran back into the engine. We banged on the car repeatedly (listen to the video) and it gurgled back at us. [After the tap-tap of the broom handle you can hear the response. The background noise you hear is the sound of cicadas.]
We spent some time attempting to scare the squirrel out of the Mini, to no effect. At the end of his rope by now, David started the engine to see if that would do the trick. Nothing. Finally, he drove a short distance up the street. The squirrel departed the vehicle. The hypocrite vegetarian returned triumphant.
The next day, the neighbor with the older VW Beetle came by to tell us about his own squirrel nightmare, this time in his State-issued Ford Explorer Hybrid. He got in and drove to work as usual and about 20 minutes into his morning commute his check-engine light went on. He was on a highway at the time, so he pulled over onto the shoulder and opened the hood. It was not just a nest that he found, and it was char-broiled.
Over the next few weeks I found the beginnings of new nests in the VW several more times. This problem was just not going away. The battle continued and I was losing. I began to think the squirrels were teaching each other. By now my obsession with squirrelzilla led me to do more “research” on squirrels, and I learned a lot of interesting facts. The females generally have two sets of babies per year, in the early spring and again in the summer. It turns out that there are two kinds of squirrels: tree squirrels and ground squirrels. Tree squirrels have smaller tails. So it turns out that tree squirrels are the ones plaguing us. I also found out that squirrels are not nocturnal, but are industrious, up-at-dawn types who like to build in the early hours of the day, when it is light. And they don’t like to build nests with open tops, so the advice to keep the hood up when possible is actually good.
In my online research I found what can only be described as a deep well of madness about squirrels and their nefarious activities. Not only are there people ready to kill and maim every squirrel on the planet, there are some in deep need of pharmaceutical and psychiatric help to cope with their anger, anxiety, and dread about squirrels and what they are doing and especially about what they might do in the future. I found scores of comments and pleas for answers on websites that sell animal-control products, with one in particular providing a huge amount of crowd-sourced knowledge and long, excruciating personal tales of woe about squirrels.
“We had the car back for 25 days, and it happened again. This time the damage wasn’t as bad and we had changed our deductible to $100 but it was still a $300+ job to fix it, and I lost my car from Thursday to Tuesday. Needless to say, we started trapping (Havahart traps) and transporting the squirrels 10 miles away and over a river. We just released #15 this afternoon and we do not live in a wooded area. We are in a nice little suburban area w/some trees. The only way back to our area is over the bridge or by swimming. I have nightmares of troops of squirrels marching back over the bridge to my car. What kills me is that there are 6 houses on our block, each house has 2 cars. With 12 cars to choose from, why did the squirrels choose mine, twice?!?”
One post, “How Do I Kill Squirrels That Are Eating My Car?” starts out saying the author just wants the squirrels to stop chewing on his wires. Then it descends into Heart of Darkness-inspired imagery: “Ideally, this would be because they are dead, with their bleached skulls posted on stakes around the driveway as a warning to the next generation, but I’ll settle for “gone very far away, never to chew on vehicle wiring again.”(http://scienceblogs.com/principles/2010/02/28/how-do-i-kill-the-squirrels-wh/)
I also discovered that there are class action lawsuits concerning the earth-friendly soy coverings now put on wires of VWs, Hondas, and Fords, because small mammals apparently find this stuff very tasty. The level of desperation in the comments was funny at first, a little like the groundskeeper in Caddyshack, played by Bill Murray. But eventually the groundskeeper used explosives in an attempt to blow the critters out of the ground, where they were ruining the green.
The End–or So I Thought
A month ago I was at home, working on my laptop in front of a window that looks out on the backyard. I heard some insistent scratching outside the window, so I stood up to look up at the gutters in an effort to figure out if there was a bird or something perhaps trying to get in, or out. With the onset of cold weather, we’ve had more than a few mice running around the house. I couldn’t see anything going on above, so I opened the window and stuck my head out. I could now locate the mad scratching sound as coming out of a tall garbage can that was standing under the rain gutter to catch water.
I walked outside and slowly went over to the can, and peeked inside. A wet head with two beady eyes looked at me with what I can only say was desperation. It was a squirrel treading water. We looked at each other for a long moment. I fleetingly thought of Max Cady from Cape Fear, hair slicked back, talking in tongues. “COUNselor, save me.” Max, or Maxine, Squirrel may have eaten my engine–or perhaps its mother ate my engine.
What could I do? I tipped over the can, and as soon as it landed, a wave of water disgorged Max/Maxine, who went running off, stopping every few seconds to shake off water, all the while staring back at me, making shrill noises as he/she escaped along the wooden fence. I felt very charitable and magnanimous about sparing Max/Maxine. My self-congratulations were short lived.
Epilogue: Resurgence, February 2017
They’re back. No babies yet, but there are piles of acorns and leaves and even tufts of hair in my Beetle engine. I’m back to leaving the hood up, or putting it down a bit propped up, with a bag of mothballs inside. I have to take out the mothballs each time I drive, and then remember to put them in the engine each time I return. On top of waking up every day to the latest Trump assaults, I have to gather strength to keep up the endless war against Squirrelzilla. But I must fight on, because like Godzilla, which has 29 sequels, Squirrelzilla has a new sequel each new season.