“You can’t make friends with a squirrel. Squirrels are just rats with cuter outfits.”
– Carrie Bradshaw to boyfriend Aiden on HBO’s Sex and the City
JasmineMy happy-go-lucky pit bull, Jasmine Blue, has become squirrel obsessed, like a lab with a ball, a bulldog with a skateboard, or a Pomeranian with a lap. Our long, relaxing walks in Buena Vista Park used to be the reward – now they are simply the means to get to the real reward at the end: squirrel watching.
Along the eastern border of the park, there is a large oak tree that crowns a sloping hill covered with a tangle of other tree branches – I call it Squirrel Hollow – and dozens of bushy-tailed creatures make their home there. Jazzy can’t get enough. She hurries through our walks, sniffing and peeing like a maniac. Recently, though, the San Francisco Recreation & Park department began a renovation of the east side and put a tall chain-link fence around the entire area. I thought (perhaps hoped) this might put an end to the obsession, but it turns out squirrels are terrific self-preservationists – they know where the food is.
Everyone from Roger the Squirrel Man to the gardeners put peanuts out for these fat and happy squirrels. Now, with the chain-link fence, Squirrel Hollow has become Squirrel Zoo, with dozens of the little guys skittering up and down the two big trees closest to the enclosure, chattering and twitching their tails, which I believe is Squirrelese for “You’ll never catch me with that leash on and that big pit bull butt.”
At first we only stopped momentarily so Jazzy could get a glimpse, but once she stubbornly started planting herself, I knew this wasn’t going to be enough to satisfy her growing curiosity. I also noticed that if I stood there too long, the squirrels began to come closer, circling around me as if I were their very own Snow White – sitting up on their hind legs, heads cocked, begging for food – and their beady little eyes made me feel guilty.
I feed the birds and a few squirrels that frequent our backyard, so one gloomy day I stuffed the giant pockets of my old, ugly raincoat full of peanuts. With my hood over my head and my hips bulging with squirrel bait, more bag lady than Snow White at this point, we headed into the park. “Squirrellies!” I called, and tossed a few peanuts over the fence. Within minutes they were everywhere, and Jazzy was thrilled. I looped her leash over a metal pole and reminded her that she needed to sit still or the squirrels would leave, and if the squirrels left, so did we. It only took a couple of times for her to figure out the routine – she began to lie patiently, nose to the fence, watching as one squirrel after another begged for peanuts from the protected confines of Squirrel Zoo. I, too, noticed something – all my tension melted away, even more so than during our walks. Squirrel feeding, it turns out, makes for great meditation.
I am sure I appear nuttier than my pockets to passersby as I called my seven-dozen dwarves by the monikers I bestowed upon them: the grey squirrel missing an ear is “Uno,” the pair of beautiful red fox squirrels are “Red” and “Ruby,” the small guy with half a tail is “Stumpy,” the really tiny one is “Shrimp.” The rest all look alike, so they’re a collective “Squirrelly.”
One cold, rainy day, Jazzy, with great disappointment, discovered that the squirrels stayed in their nests during storms. I took her up there anyway, just to get it out of her system. She planted her big pittie butt and we waited for any sign of them, my pockets brimming with peanuts as raindrops cascaded off my hood. Through the trees I could see my house, warm and dry, beckoning me as I shivered in my old, ugly raincoat, along with Jazzy in her much cuter pink patent raincoat with black and white polka-dot trim.
With the weather turning warmer, each visit to Squirrel Zoo brings more and more fluffy rodents who grow more and more spoiled by the custom gourmet squirrel mixes I create at the pet supply store. The first time Red bit into a kernel of corn, he spit it out and gave me a dirty look. Unsalted pumpkin and sunflower seeds are more popular, but peanuts in the shell remain the nibble of choice.
Often we see Roger, who trudges through the entire park with two big bags of Safeway unsalted peanuts nearly every day. At first we just nodded our heads at each other, but now we stand together, tossing peanuts and chatting about our favorites (“Have you seen Red or Ruby?” I ask. “Not today, but I did see Red yesterday,” Roger replies). I think Roger may be homeless but I’m not quite sure. What I do know is that he is a better conversationalist than most folks, and he knows a heck of a lot about squirrels. As Roger and I chat and toss peanuts to the seven-dozen dwarves, Jazzy remains at our sides, nose pressed to the fence, lying as still as she can so that our ritual lasts as long as possible.