The Ugly American

by Christine Adams Beckett

The empty nesters that lived in the apartment above us in Paris were fresh from a visit to Philadelphia, where their son who had been working for a hotel, when they invited me for coffee. We had lived there a year when they had decided to move to a smaller place, and were feeling hospitable. I enjoyed being in their family home, seeing the mirror image of my own abode in its original form, as they had done very little renovation over the 25 years that they lived there.

Over coffee and madeleines, the woman offered to show me photographs of her trip to the City of Brotherly Love, containing images of what any red blooded American would expect: the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and the statue of Benjamin Franklin taken at his Institute. What I didn’t expect were pages and pages of the American eastern grey squirrel in every possible pose.

Obnoxious, pumpkin eating eastern grey squirrel who will take up residence in many a suburban garbage can and rip apart your attic insulation.

“Ils sont très mignons!” our hostess exclaimed.

Cute? I chuckled to myself, remembering driving on the Farmington Flats in Connecticut with my father when I struck and killed one of the grey furry creatures, during a dreadful case of squirrel roulette gone wrong. I was barely seventeen at the time, but I had already learned to ignore the darting squirrel, knowing full well that they somehow would speedily steal back to safety before tragedy would strike. But that summer afternoon in Farmington, I managed to find the lone sluggish one, and struck it with the right front quarter panel of my Dodge Omni, sending it spinning in a gruesome circle that reflected deadly in the rear view mirror.

I cried in agony over causing another living thing pain, ending a life. I pulled over and looked to my father for comfort, all the while still feeling slightly foolish.

“Are you kiddin’ me? It’s a rodent!” My dad, a retired Army Colonel, always knew how to put things into perspective. I loved him for it, but I also let him continue our journey behind the wheel as he sheeshed under his breath and shook his head with a confused grin.

They certainly are rodents, however, and rather nasty ones at that. Age and experience have made me even more hard hearted towards the little grey beasts. They’re hoarders who eat my jack-o-lanterns before I am ready to toss them out with the wilted chrysanthemums. They get into my garbage cans and chew through the plastic bags in pursuit of leftovers. They have nested in the walls of our attic. They even found their way down our chimney and into our family room via the fireplace as if it was their personal welcome mat, the grate of fake coals that houses a gas fire, a nifty addition of the British family that owned this house before us.

For a week or so before any human occupant made a close encounter of the third kind with the squirrels, I would catch the Pooch sitting at the fireplace, staring at the ground, still as stone. She’d sniff at the edges of the hearth and sit down again, cocking her head to the side like the RCA dog. When I went to inspect the chimney myself, Pooch would stand at attention, tail twitching, grateful for my help. But the flashlight came up empty every time. I assumed the dog was misdirected, until I got a frantic call from the babysitter while having dinner out with my husband the following Saturday night.

When we got home a mere minutes later, we found the whole brood standing outside the french doors to the family room enjoying the show: one adult and two adolescent Eastern grey squirrels darting around my family room, making laps from the hearth to the radiator under the window, to under the couch: streaks of grey, terrified fur that were tough to follow with human eyes.

My husband, after changing into appropriate squirrel chasing attire, entered the family room-turned-squirrel playground armed with a child’s tennis racket and a bottle of non-alcoholic beer, and managed to chase them permanently under the radiator. I must explain: my husband is one of those brilliant guys who usually has a pretty practical sensibility about the solutions to problems. But when it comes to grouting a bathroom shower, fixing a broken bicycle, or trapping wildlife in our home, he isn’t our guy. If one needs the answer to some vague question of ancient history, a Supreme Court decision from 1982 or parties involved in any international dispute: he’s definitely your man. He also makes a mean guacamole, but a squirrel hunter he is not.

I found the only pest control company in the tri-state area who answered the phone at 9 pm on a Saturday night. The “wildlife expert” showed up tout de suite with a six foot-long pool skimmer with a hole in its net.

“What in hell do you hope to accomplish with that?” I asked him.

“I’ll get ’em,” he replied. “Don’t you worry. I do this all the time.”

For the next half hour I watched this poor, overweight man who was holed up in a pest control office at nine PM on a Saturday hurl himself all over our family room, upsetting piles of books, knocking over vases, jarring the furniture. Now literally sweating, red faced and lunging towards the moving targets, I imagined he didn’t love the audience. My husband and he had the exterior doors opened in hopes of corralling our uninvited guests out the door, but instead they managed to chase them right back up the chimney again.

I heard them mumbling through the door, and my husband glanced at me with a look I recognized from years of forming an unspoken language of marriage: skepticism, bewilderment, and finally resolve. Our friend with the ripped pool net turned to the gas ignition to smoke out our grey squirrels, and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. Most baffling: it worked. The eastern greys, slightly singed, scooted right out the door with their black tails smoking behind them, my husband slamming (and locking for good measure) the exterior doors.

“That’ll be $300, please.” Incredulous, I wrote him a check, remarking that the gas ignition switch was a better tool than the ripped pool net. I made a mental note to replace our obviously inadequate chimney cap.

It’s a decent story to recall during business dinners to impress my husband’s colleagues and clients. Nothing like a self-depreciating story about a crazily smart guy to make him even more likable. At a recent dinner with some legal types from the International Chamber of Commerce, we were on topic of unwanted guests: rats. I of course brought up our squirrels.

European red squirrel, no match for the buffoon of an eastern grey variety.

One colleague, also from Paris, remarked that there were no squirrels en ville (another reason we need to move back: make a note of it), but there were gobs of them in London. In fact, the American eastern grey squirrels are taking over the UK entirely, an invasive species introduced in the 19th century that has pushed out – almost completely – the native red squirrel. There have been lots of speculation as to why, including their hardiness. But a more likely explanation is that the grey squirrel carries a pox virus to which they are immune, but the red squirrels are susceptible to catching and succumbing. The greys are also damaging local trees, and wreaking havoc with local bird populations by taking up all their prime nesting real estate, and even eating their eggs, the rotten savages.

It is now illegal to import an American eastern grey squirrel to the UK. Italy has also seen dangerous explosions in the grey squirrel population, as has Scotland. No one wants this ugly American rodent tourist messing up their habitat, driving up real estate prices, over-tipping the waiters and draining all their natural resources. Damn Yanks. Go Home!

They are home, and here to stay. A few weeks ago, as my toddler and I were preparing to get in the car for one errand or another, we startled three grey squirrels eating from the banquet that is my lidless garbage cans, naked due to one of our crazily gusty summer thunderstorms. Two of the trio bolted right under my feet, nearly knocking me to my backside while the third misjudged the garage window for an opening. Slamming its head into the pane of glass with a thud, cracking it in the corner, it spun around several times and wearily walked right by us in a stupor.

My toddler’s giggles turned into belly laughs.

“Again?” she asked.

“I’m sure,” I responded, mentally noting that my Parisian neighbors didn’t have one solitary photograph of a grey squirrel in a garbage can, its natural habitat.