My Urban Adversaries

Written on by Kathryn Lerro

I have a problem with squirrels.

I would not have thought I’d have a problem with squirrels—or any other form of wildlife—living here in South Philadelphia, but I do. I grew up in the country, where we once had a large family of flying squirrels encamped in our attic. (They don’t really “fly,” but they’ve been known to glide for nearly 300 feet. My mother had the opportunity to closely examine one during their relocation from our attic to the woods, and was amazed to see that the fur along the sides of its tail resembled tiny feathers. But I digress.)

So, back to South Philly, where my husband and I are living in the house he grew up in. Our kitchen window looks out on our “yard.” If you’ve never seen a Philly row home yard, I’ll enlighten you. Ours is fairly typical: it is 10’ x 14’, contained at the back and on one side by cement block walls. The floor is concrete. There is a door on the back wall which leads to a narrow alley. In lieu of a wall on the south side, we have a wrought iron fence with a gate, which allows us to visit our next door neighbors (my husband’s lovely, elderly aunts) via their kitchen door.

When we moved in, the walls in the yard were covered with peeling pink paint. I was already dealing with quite a bit of culture/environment shock after moving here from Alaska, where the view from our kitchen window was a gorgeous chain of mountains and endless sky. Looking at peeling paint and electrical lines from this kitchen window as I washed dishes was demoralizing, so I decided to do something to improve it.

First, stucco went onto the walls, then cream colored paint. The alley door was painted black. Ten black planter boxes were mounted on the top of the back and side walls, and filled with flowering plants and trailing vines. White twinkle lights were hung along the front of the planter boxes. A few tall potted plants were placed in the corners and, last but not least, a black wrought iron table and chairs went in the middle. The change was dramatic. What had been a yard was now a garden. No matter what shenanigans were going on in our neighborhood, I could look out at the garden and feel that all was right with the world.

That is, until someone started feeding squirrels.

I began seeing plants disturbed, sometimes completed uprooted, and piles of dirt on the floor. I found holes that had been dug in the potting soil. And deep in the soil I found peanuts—lots of peanuts. When we first moved here, I’d occasionally see a lone squirrel in the yard, but now I was seeing as many as five at one time. They ran amok in the yard. They pillaged the planters with impunity.  They bit the bulbs off my twinkle lights and buried them with the peanuts. When I caught them in their mischief, I banged on the window, only to be met with “Yeah, what?” expressions. (These are South Philly squirrels we’re dealing with.)

I called Animal Control. They were no help. I could pay to have them set catch-and- release traps and relocate the squirrels, but they said that once squirrels know where there’s a source of food, they’ll keep finding their way back. I hung a decoy owl to deter them: they scoffed in his plastic face. I sprinkled foul smelling granules among the plants to repel them, but the odor only repelled me. When I finally figured out which neighbor was providing the peanuts, I spoke to her and she agreed to stop—at least for the warmer months. But the damage has already been done. The squirrels (or “volunteer gardeners” as my peanut-pushing neighbor affectionately calls them) are apparently here to stay.

I’m realizing that the squirrels are like a lot of other challenges I face in life. I can do everything in my power to make them go away, but if they don’t, I need the wisdom to recognize that they aren’t going to. And ultimately I need to find a way to be okay with that. Or, as the famous old quote goes: I need “the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed.” *

Perhaps I can learn to live at peace with the squirrels. That’s going to take some doing, as I’m absolutely nowhere near that point yet.

In the meantime, if you have any suggestions for a (humane) way to make my yard a squirrel-free zone, I’d love to hear them.

* Excerpt from The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr

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