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September 07, 2005 - Image 27

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The Michigan Daily, 2005-09-07

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I

COMMENTARY

The Michigan Daily - New Student Edition - Fall 2005 -5B

* Squirrel huggers
SAM SINGER SAM 'S CLUB OCTOBER 14, 2004

There's a reason I
shy away from the
squirrels in the
Diag. It's not their unusu-
al size, though even a
sharp-eyed expert would
have trouble distinguish-
ing the Ann Arbor garden
variety from a slimmed-
down mountain lion. It's
not their daring grit either
- I watched one stare down an oncoming
Chevy Tahoe, poised on hind legs, undaunted
'til the tragic end. They're bold little critters,
but that's not what gets me.
To better understand, imagine, for just a
moment, returning from winter break to learn
your bedroom held host to what may have
been the rowdiest rodent rock party of the cen-
tury - two weeks of sunflower seed bingeing,
honey-roasted peanut feasts and God knows
what sorts ┬░of squirrel-on-squirrel debauchery.
The room was ravaged. Hidden under a blan-
ket of empty shells, the carpet and the once-
orderly food corner were barely recognizable.
Other traces of foul play - from my com-
forter to my keyboard - spread far and wide.
Squirrel pellets, the last vestiges of the lavish
banquet, had been peppered about the room.
How they got in was unclear. The room,
equipped with four walls and a ceiling, had

always appeared closed off to the outside
world. What mattered was that they wouldn't
be coming back. No squirrel in the right
mind, I was told, would chance a break-in
with the space re-occupied. It made sense.
We were, after all, 30 times their size. But as
luck would have it, no more than a week of
tranquility passed before the intruders recov-
ered their nerves.
It started with petty theft. A pretzel stick
here, some Cheez-Its there, nothing we
couldn't make light of. But the food raids were
quick to intensify. Our food supply was thin-
ning, and the more measures we took to pro-
tect it, the more ambitious the little demons
became. They gutted Ziplock bags and gnawed
through cardboard boxes. Their motor skills,
which I'd bet the bank would exceed those-of
the average kindergartner, were simply stun-
ning. No container was too strong to puncture,
no packaging too thick to penetrate. Their
appetite seemed to grow by the day, but as I
learned while shuffling bleary-eyed through
my underwear drawer at eight one morning,
they weren't eating everything they stole.
A neat mound of pistachio nuts next to my
favorite pair of boxers. A carefully hidden
stash of miniature cookies below my under-
shirts. A week-old, half-eaten grilled cheese
sandwich lodged between my sweaters. My
dresser, which apparently resembled the hol-

low of a tree, had become a personal pantry
for our stash-happy guests. That did it for me.
Pest control came with traps of all shapes
and sizes. Industrial-strength storage bins
were rolled in to fortify the food supply, and
the room was rigged with metal cages and
rectangular sheets of super glue. It may have
looked like a war zone, but it was squirrel-
proof, and we slept easy.
Cut off, the invaders grew sloppier and more
aggressive by the day. Worse, our presence in
the room was no longer enough to keep them
out. As you can guess, this brought about some
close encounters (including an early-morning
incident on my roommate's bed that left him
possibly warped for life, but certainly forever
terrified of anything with fur). After a few
more traumatizing run-ins, we finally found
the entry point. What had begun with an open
bag of sunflower seeds ended with a two-by-
four piece of plywood.
It all got me wondering: What drove these
guys indoors in the first place, and why, in the
face of unmistakable danger, did they insist
on coming back? So I sucked it up and did
some homework. It wasn't the most interesting
research, but I think I found some answers.
Did you know squirrels don't hibernate?
It's the truth. Much like us, they spend their
winters relatively inactive, though never com-
pletely dormant. Activity during cold months

is usually limited to the gathering of previous-t
ly stored nuts and seeds. It's the harsh winters<
that make the foraging and hoarding periods,i
which typically take place in mid-to-late fall,s
so critical. A successful foraging season willt
strongly correlate with a squirrel's capacity tof
accumulate body fat during the winter. It's a1
survival strategy, and in an urban ecosystem
like Ann Arbor's where provisions are scarce,I
it's one that requires total optimization.i
Enter the Squirrel Club. Founded in1
2002, the organization boasts a member-i
ship of more than 350. It convenes weeklyt
(in groups of about 50) during warm monthsi
and less often over the winter, to feed on-
campus squirrel populations.c
I know what you're thinking, and you're right:
the act of feeding a squirrel, in-and-of itself, isc
harmless. The problem comes, however, when
the process is streamlined - in this case, whenc
fifty kids walk around campus every weeki
showering squirrels with food supplements.I
Though undoubtedly well intentioned, club
gatherings may have profound impacts on the-
behavioral patterns of our local squirrels, each
of which run the risk of developing a dangerous
reliance on student generosity.s
A squirrel even marginally dependent ont
weekly donations will inevitably devote less
energy to foraging and hoarding. Those lucky
enough to avoid the appetite cushion will be

that much better acclimated to the realities
of resource scarcity, and in turn, that much
more efficient come time to forage. It is a
squirrel's ability to recover food in the win-
ter, not its feeding patterns in the spring and
fall, that will ultimately determine its pros-
pect of survival.
In this light, the Michigan Squirrel Club may
be doing for campus squirrels what decades of
inefficient and mismanaged welfare payouts
have done for our nation's poor: dampening
incentives and confining recipients to destitu-
tion. Ann Arbor squirrels don't need a safety
net, they need a reality check.
If anything, complacency with an artifi-
cial, but by no means reliable feeding regimen
will keep recipients foraging into the dead
of winter where they are left to scour for by-
and-large nonexistent provisions. Perhaps this
could explain why instead of lying cozy in his
nest, our little friend was sifting through my
bag of Snyder's Pretzels.
To members of the Squirrel Club, let me say
this: Yes, convening to feed is a kind-hearted
gesture. Yes, it's probably a nice social outlet
as well. And yes, everyone loves a novelty T-
shirt. But please, next time you're out there,
think of the squirrels.
Singer can be reached at
singers@umich.edu.

w ?;E1.3ii

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