It was the most ordinary Thursday morning. Chilly. Early December maybe. It rained overnight and the road was slick with iridescent swirls of oil and water. There were leaves matted to the street and a few branches were scattered on the ground. I drove over all of them on my way out of the subdivision, unnoticed until I’m replaying it in my mind and describing it to you now. At the time I had other things on my mind which distracted me from noticing the details of my drive. But like a security camera that records the mundane, sometimes there’s more to see when reviewed.
The sun stretches its first warm arms through the clouds and glows pink orange on the horizon. It’s still dark, but there’s promise that it’s going to be a gorgeous late Fall day. My headlights shine on the curve in the road and reflect off the fog. There was a mist of slow moving ghosts. A chill runs through me and I tap the arrow button on the heater. When my eyes returned to the road, I see a squirrel in the middle of it. There was something in the center of the road holding his attention. I slowed. Was it a pile of leaves? A fallen branch? The squirrel hopped back and forth in front of whatever it was. Darting from side to side, it seemed unsure of what to do next. My car downshifted to a crawl as I met the obstruction in the road. A broken tree limb must have fallen during the overnight storm and lying next to it was a dead squirrel. The other squirrel hopped away from my car’s approach but waited by the side of the road. Sitting on it’s haunches, the squirrel’s head bobbed. It’s front paws busy and frantic. Its tail twitched and snapped.
There was nothing for me to do. The squirrel on the curb was obviously in distress over the loss of the other one. The squirrel’s partner was not injured. It was dead so there was no need for me to jump into rescue mode and make a trip to the Emergency vet. Would I do it for a squirrel anyway? I mean, it’s a squirrel. Would I try to save it if I could? I don’t know. I might have. I sat back in my seat after I realized that I had been hunched over my steering wheel, gawking at leaves and dead wildlife. I strategically moved my car around the limb and the squirrel. I’m not even sure why I did that. Was I paying respect to a dead squirrel in the road? Was I driving away slowly to let the living squirrel know I was sorry for his loss? What made me so solemn? What made me even care?
When I glanced in the rearview mirror, the squirrel ran back to the center of the road and hopped around its friend lying near the fallen branch. I’m not sure why seeing this broke my heart. I was saddened that a creature had lost it’s teammate and friend. The squirrel appeared baffled, completely lost without his mate. He circled the branch and his friend. Around and around. Almost as if he were waiting for his squirrel friend to shake off the stun of the fall, then pop up and join him on the other side of the road.
My LORD! What am I doing? Why am I thinking about this? Why am I writing about it now? They’re only squirrels after all. Rodents. Nuisances. Why do I care about two rats with bushy tails? There are about a million of them in our world. We’re overpopulated. With this one dead, we’d have one less squirrel to worry about, right? But I don’t feel this way. I’m depressed that one of the squirrels died and the other hasn’t come to grips with the goodbye.
There’s so much irony and hypocrisy in this story I’m sharing with you. I believe it’s the main reason I feel compelled to write about it. There are squirrels we are trying to get rid of in our attic and I do not care about their lives. Isn’t that statement just awful? We have one in particular that scratches and digs and works diligently on his nest right about the time I’m falling asleep. It’s probably the same one that I see sitting on my gutter when I come home from work. He’s near the vent in the attic, chewing on a hickory nut, leaving discarded shells on my driveway. He peers down at me like, “Oh, you’re home. How was your day?”
My husband and I have discussed putting our Jack Russell, Cinna, in the attic long enough to chase the squirrels out of there. Possibly to kill, but more likely to scare so that they won’t come back. But our dog, although she is quite the hunter in our backyard, has the intelligence of a pile of our recently removed, stained carpet. We decided against putting her in our attic for fear she would miss a step in her squirrel pursuits and fall through the ceiling.
We’ve also entertained the idea of my husband grabbing his old rifle and shooting the squirrel. That thought was fleeting for me since the gun hasn’t been fired in years, nor has it been recently cleaned. Also I don’t want to hire roofers to patch a blown out hole and even then, probably still have a squirrel in my attic.
We’ve thought of setting out poison, but I’ve heard that hawks and owls who capture prey and feast on the poisoned animal suffer a miserable death too. We’ve considered hiring a professional critter remover, but for some reason we don’t do it. And that reason is probably cost. Have you ever priced a critter removing service? Cha-Ching. It’s probably cheaper to host a baby shower AND throw a going away party for the new squirrel parents and their litter.
So if I’m willing to rid my attic of squirrels and spend my time figuring out how to permanently remove them, then why do I care about the one in the road?
I thought about this question all day. I came up with an answer, but I’m open to more ideas if you have them. Here’s my take on it. The squirrels in the attic (not toys, thank you Aerosmith) are an annoyance to me. They live within my space. They’re not welcome in my home or in the nearby trees. The squirrel that sits on the roof of my house and seems to wait for me to come home, along with all of his little squirrel relatives are nothing but squatters. What would my actual invited human guests think if I told them we had a “minor” squirrel problem? I run through the exchange in my head.
“We’re trying to do the right thing with them.” Our guests nod slowly, trying not to reveal disgust. “We’re going through the process you know? It’s a system.” We click our tongue and shake our head in solidarity. “Tsk Tsk.”*
Squirrels are not in the same bracket as our friends who visit. They are completely different from my other, upright, two-legged next door neighbors. The ones who mow their grass, wave at me across the fence and grill on Saturdays. The squirrels who nest in my attic and live in my trees scatter when I throw open the back porch door. Our dog bounds off the deck barking and announcing her chase before she even sees them. The squirrels who live closest to me, the ones who made an apartment in my rafters - are the ones who disturb my peace and tranquillity. They must go.
But the squirrel mourning its partner in the middle of the road tugs on my sympathetic heart. *That* squirrel has a life, a heart beat and a delightful personality. He has his own community (away from me and down the road) where he lives, eats and spends the day caching nuts and trinkets. That squirrel (over there) has emotions and distress. That squirrel (separate from me) experiences loss. Since my life is apart from the squirrel and his life, it doesn’t affect mine. The squirrel’s life, skittish and jumpy that I drove around on my way out of the subdivision, somehow has more value than the ones on my back porch. I can acknowledge it’s life’s worthiness from a distance. My perspective wears lenses of compassion and sympathy.
ALL DAMN DAY, I thought about this squirrel, running back and forth across the road trying to believe that his partner was just stunned and would hop up and join him on the other side of the road. Literally, ALL. DAY. This squirrel was on my brain. Can you guess where my thoughts travelled next? Have you connected any parallels in my story? Here...Let me help.....WHAT IF I change the squirrel imagery and make it human? What if the squirrel becomes a person? Let’s make him, umm, I don’t know...
Any race different from you? Hispanic? Black? Indian? Any lifestyle different from you?
Gay? Poor? Homeless?
Let’s make him human, but one with a different lifestyle. I know what I’m asking you is a stretch. It is on the weird side, but if we can alter our reality and believe for a moment in District 12, Alexandria, and a galaxy far, far away- you can hang with me on this squirrel analogy.
Does your heart break when you see a person *not like you* experience tragedy and loss?
If a man who *is not your same race* has been shot in the street, are you saddened to read the news? If these humans, *different from us* live and work and play at a safe distance - *somewhere else* they’re okay, right? If they’re in someone else’s community, their lives have no affect on us. We can *safely* sympathize with their loss from far, far away.
It challenges our position when these different humans move in close to us and blend into our communities. When they move into our space and push on our imaginary safe bubble that’s when we lose our sh*#. Our inner sanctum...our life as we know it is jeopardized and everything around us is questioned.
If, for discussion’s sake, I make the squirrel a human, what changes?
If the human lives away from you, does anything change?
If in the story, I bring the human close to you and your way of life - how do you react? (Not living in your attic, ‘cuz, that’s just creepy.) Just imagine them in your part of the world. Your new next door neighbor or the hired employee assigned to your department. If the human has a different way of life than you, what is your sympathy scale when they are close? When they are far away?
That’s the parallel. That’s the thing that crawled into my mind and took up residence...ALL DAY LONG. I’ve thought about how heartbroken I was watching one squirrel’s grieving process but also in the same day trying to remove a family of them from my home.
That’s where compassion meets inconvenience.
Why is it easier to have sympathy for life when it doesn’t inconvenience you? I think it’s because you don’t have to do anything. It’s only a thought. You *thought* about having sympathy for this person. You *thought* about them for a few minutes, then felt better about yourself because you paused your life long enough to give them your time. You don’t actually *do* anything about it. THINKING is not DOING because you’re not PLANNING anything. You move on with your day after the appropriate number times you expressed “poor thing” and “that’s just awful.” No skin off our a$$. No real time or emotional investment. Just fleeting thoughts without action.
UNLESS the tragedy affects us and it’s nearby. Then BAM - all of a sudden we’re researching solutions, volunteering, and rallying the community. Depending on our position, we ask for donations or encourage our neighbors to install security systems or clean their guns. We’re shutting people out while we’re letting some in. We’re contacting our Senators. We’re discussing it with our coworkers, but only the ones who agree with us. We’re teaching our children about differences instead of similarities. We do ANYTHING we can to avoid THE PEOPLE - THE DANGER - THE SQUIRRELS who are different from us. Why can’t they just live somewhere else? They can have their community and we can have ours.
I believe the reason is that humans and squirrels (figuratively and literally) ARE the community. Our willingness to embrace differences or protecting ourselves from those differences does not change community, only our participation in it. Community exists whether or not you want to be a part of it. Being *a part of* or *apart from* is your decision but community will still be there if you change your mind. Community doesn’t want to change your family’s values, but it does acknowledge that not all family’s values are the same.
And I got all of this from a dead squirrel in the road and a family of them in my attic.
Thanks for reading!
Please enjoy this 3 minute video of a mother squirrel trying to get her baby in our attic...
(Part of it is heartbreaking because the baby is too big to carry, and he’s unable to jump with his mom.)