The Uninvited Guest
It was a lazy Sunday afternoon some years back. Calmly snuggled on the sofa, Tara and Ruby, our golden retrievers, were the epitome of contentedness. Then, boom! Out of nowhere, they lurched from their coma-like midday nap, flying over to a living room heating vent located at the baseboard.
Their back hair bristled, and they couldn’t be more animated as they sniffed at the vent, powered by a frenzied id ordinarily reserved for mating episodes. Then, together, like an out-of-control freight train, they bolted for another vent in the dining room. Seconds after, they raced back to the living room vent. It was instantaneously apparent that something had gotten into the house. But what? No doubt some animal. With some trepidation, I headed toward the basement door.
Now, I’d love to say that our basement was a model of neatness and orderliness, with all the storage boxes we kept down there properly labelled and assigned to a logical place. But if I did, I’d be lying. It’s not a case of hoarding by any means. It’s just that keeping things well-organized down there had never been a priority. Quite telling was one box that came along from our move 15 years earlier that was labelled, “Don’t Even Bother Opening.”
Ever so gingerly, I opened the door to the basement. I dared not turn on the light, fearful it would alert the intruder. I slowly tiptoed my way down the first few steps, peering into the basement, hoping, make that praying, that whatever provoked the dogs was no more than a wayward mouse who had managed to find its way into the basement. But with each step I was becoming increasingly convinced that I was about to become the afternoon snack of a deadly King Cobra, a starving 20-foot alligator, or a villainess vulture. Perhaps all three.
It was dark. I was relying on the minimal light softly sweeping in from the few small windows along the top of one basement wall. I saw nothing. A few more steps. Still nothing. I crept down to the bottom step. Nothing.
Could the dogs have been mistaken? Could their most highly developed sense of smell have miscalculated? Both dogs?
That sense of smell is flawless. They would get perfect scores on an olfactory SAT or bat 1000 if the baseball was slathered with gravy. A needle bearing even one molecule of chicken would be found not just in a haystack – that would be child’s play, make that puppy’s play – but in a 40-acre field of hay. Dogs have up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about six million in ours.
Tara and Ruby were undoubtedly aware that the rhino that was about to charge and gore me into oblivion was in the neighborhood before he made its way into the house. They knew exactly what was in the basement, fully aware of its razor-sharp teeth, its behemoth size, its jaws of steel, its menacing intent. And here is where a bit of canine genetic reengineering would have been helpful to me. If only Tara and Ruby had just an iota of speech, they might have clued me in. The tradeoff, just a smidgen less sense of smell acuity, would make no difference to them – after all, they had plenty to spare -- whereas even a hint of English would be life saving for me. I’m not asking for much. A vocabulary of even a few words would do the trick, just enough to blurt out “Hey, be careful, Godzilla is in the basement.”
Now I was standing on the basement floor. I looked to my left. Nothing there. A stack of four boxes was just to my right. My eyes were drawn to the box on the bottom. The score from Pycho began pounding in my head, building as it did when Janet Leigh was in the shower – that chilling, discordant anxiety-producing stringed staccato, pulsating, quickening in its relentlessness. Much like my heartbeat.
My eyes worked their way up the stack of boxes.
There! Perched on the edge of the top box, silent and immobile. I stared in disbelief. At once, we both froze, stunned to be in one another’s presence. Our eyes locked.
It was a squirrel, a gray bushy-tailed squirrel as cute as could be.
The squirrel made the first move, scampering off the box and darting behind the shelving on which we keep boxes filled with troves of treasured family photos.
I ran upstairs in Guinness record-breaking time and quickly looked up the number for Animal Control. In the meantime, Tara and Ruby were having a field day sniffing and darting from room to room.
“Animal Control. Mike, here.” From the plodding, slumberous tone of his voice, it sounded like I woke him from a stupor.
“Hi Mike. Here’s the situation,” I began. “We have a squirrel in the basement, and I’d be grateful if someone from Animal Control could come over and remove him.”
“Is he a pet?”
“No. If he was our pet, why would I ask for him to be removed?"
“Well, you can’t keep him as a pet,” Mike said, doubling down on his out-of-thin-air assumption. “It’s not legal to keep a pet squirrel.”
Heaven, help me.
“Well, then, we’re on the same page,” I replied. “He somehow got into the house, and we’d like him to have him taken out.”
“By taken out, do you mean destroyed?” he asked.
“Oh no, of course not. Just safely removed from my basement and placed comfortably outside where he can resume collecting acorns.”
“Sounds like you learned the hard way that squirrels can’t be easily domesticated. And now you’re asking us to do the dirty work.”
I was about to give in to an impulse to bang my head against a wall.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Maybe I haven’t been clear. So let me say it again. We did not bring him into the house. He got in on his own. I don’t know how. We didn’t invite him in for a play date or to spend the holidays. Getting in was his doing, not ours. Now we just want him safely removed.”
“Oh, I see. Well then, we’d be happy to help you with this,” he said.
“Oh, fabulous! My address is—”
Mike cut me off. “Hold on, Buddy. First things first.”
“I get it. If there’s a fee, I’ll be happy to pay. But please, we would be so appreciative if you can come asap.”
“Oh no, there’s no fee.” he said.
“Nice. Then what’s the first thing first?” I asked, unable to even imagine what the problem could be.
“We can only remove an animal that is confirmed as having rabies,” he explained.
I was dumbfounded.
“As luck would have it,” I offered, “he brought his medical record. And I can see he has been tested and is positive. So, how soon can you get here?”
“This would be the first time someone reported that the intruder had a medical record. How do I know you are not making this up just to get us to come out there?”
I wasn’t prepared for Mike’s startling ineptitude for sarcasm. But the fact that he took my comment even semi seriously gave me an opening. “Well, it’s not actually a medical record in the strictest sense,” I said, fumbling for something to say. “But I’m pretty sure I may have possibly seen some foaming at the mouth.”
“Not the same thing as a test result. Mouth foaming can occur from any number of things, even life-threatening nausea from having eaten diseased rat droppings.
I considered scheduling brain surgery to excise the imagery.
Before I could respond, he said he only had 2 minutes left until the end of his shift.
“I have an idea,” I suggested. “Can you come out, capture the squirrel, and if you think he has rabies, we’ll be in compliance with the regs. If you think he doesn’t, I’ll reimburse Animal Control for the cost of your time. And either way, I’ll make a nice donation.”
“Section 4 of the Animal Control Manifest is clear about this. We remove animals only with a positive rabies test verification. And it must be written verification. And I won’t report you for trying to bribe a township official this time.”
Some bribes are intended to get out of paying a speeding ticket on one level or extorting millions of dollars in tax breaks on another. I did not intend it to be a bribe, simply an incentive with the only intention of releasing a rodent into his own habitat. And for this I could have suffered the humiliation of a perp walk!
“So, what do we do about the squirrel?” Could I have sounded more helpless?
“You can try setting up traps and hope he takes the bait.”
“And Plan B would be…?” I implored.
“Call a commercial pest control company.”
“Not allowed to give out recommendations. FYI, my shift ends in 11 seconds.”
I sensed his finger hovering over the button to end the call.
“But, wait, please, one more question. Mike, should I—”
Amy and I googled pest control companies. Not wanting to waste a second, I called the first one on the list.
“AAA Pest Control. Tom speaking. How can we help you have a pest free day?” The contrived cheerfulness was simultaneously off-putting and charming.
I explained about the squirrel and that I wanted to make sure that his company uses humane approaches for capturing and releasing.
Tom assured us that he always watches out for the safety of the animal. As I gave him my address, I readied myself for the catch, the stipulation, the first thing that had to come first. Surprisingly, though, he just said, “I’m leaving now. I’ll be there in half an hour.”
“Great,” I said. “One thing though. What’s the fee and how long does it take.”
“I charge $25 an hour, and it takes, well, as long as it takes. We set up a cage with some peanut butter to lure him in, then we wait. It can happen right away or take as long as 24 hours.”
24 hours! Given the need for immediate resolution, this didn’t sit well. But I assumed I’d hear the same plan from every other company, except maybe those using poison, so Tom was it.
“Let’s do it. See you soon,” I said.
Tom arrived a half hour later, toting a mesh wire cage that was about 5 feet long and a foot wide and high. He had a jar of off-brand peanut butter and a spoon for scooping it out. Around his forearm was a thickly padded arm guard, the kind you see for training watchdogs.
“Why the arm contraption?” I asked, gesturing to the guard.
“You never know what might happen when these animals get nervous.”
I escorted Tom to the basement. And because the arm guard had me believe there was more risk than I thought, by escorted I mean I cowered behind him.
Tom began his mission by looking around and moving some boxes back and forth. At one point, he moved a box and said, “Come on out, little fella.”
I thought, what if that was insulting to the squirrel. Perhaps he didn’t think of himself as little. And perhaps he wasn’t a he, but a she.
“You sure the squirrel is still down here?” Tom asked. “I don’t see him anywhere. And by the way, you might want to think about organizing these boxes,” he volunteered. “Just sayin’.”
“Yeah, it’s on the list. But, hey, the dogs are still going crazy at the vents, so for sure the squirrel is still here.”
“Ok, then, let’s set up. We’ll put the cage right here,” he said, pointing to an open spot in the middle of the basement.
It took but a minute to set up. Now we were on countdown.
“What do you generally do while you wait?” I asked, hoping he had a plan to do paperwork, make calls, whatever.
“Wanna watch the game? We have some time to kill,” Tom said, a little too hopefully.
So upstairs we trudged and put on the football game. I periodically glanced at the time since in this case, time, very literally, was money. Each time I checked it was about 10 seconds later. Tom clearly found the frenetic dogs amusing.
About 20 minutes later – just as I checked the time for the nine thousandth time – we heard some commotion in the basement followed by the distinct metallic slap of a latch snapping shut.
Tom said, “That’s it. We got him. I’ll head down after this play.” He took a final gulp of his lite beer, commenting that lite beer wasn’t exactly drinking on the job, as he chased it with a fistful of popcorn.
We headed down the basement steps. And there was the squirrel, locked in the cage. He appeared content, licking his lips as he enjoyed the last traces of peanut butter. I wondered if he was a serial invader. He seemed too familiar with the routine and was not a bit rattled.
“What do we do with him now,” I asked.
“There’s a park on my way back to the office. We like to take them at least five miles away so they don’t return. I’ll let him out there.”
“What about rabies? Should he be allowed to go into a park if he has rabies?”
“From the look of him, he doesn’t have rabies. He should be fine.”
I paid Tom the $25 plus a $10 tip for the interior design recommendation about the boxes. Then out he and the squirrel went.
I returned to the living room to discover Tara and Ruby scavenging a full meal’s worth of popcorn crumbs from between the sofa cushions where Tom was lazing.
It turns out Rocky (yes, we named him). had gotten in through the chimney, no doubt from a tree limb that canopied the roof. We pruned the limb and capped the chimney. And in case you were wondering why we named him Rocky, it was because he was a member of our menagerie for just a short while, so we went with easy and obvious on the name, not meaningful or pretentious, though we briefly considered Grandpa Sam or Cicero, respectively.
Ultimately, this all brought me to a great idea for an entrepreneurial venture: The Kritter Kit, a boxed collection of items that will come in handy when a furry visitor becomes an uninvited guest. The Kritter Kit would contain:
- A collapsible crate for easy storage.
- A premium brand of peanut butter and a wooden spoon.
- A keg of beer for the pest control guy – lite beer to avoid being tagged as drinking on the job – and a super-sized tub of movie-style popcorn.
- A 24-hour subscription to a sports channel for your bonding experience with the pest control guy.
- A Bark-to-English dictionary for getting pre-intervention intel on the intruder.
- An AI-generated positive rabies test result and the phone number of the local animal control agency. Hey, you never know, there may be a Mike in your town.
- A note with the exact location of the deed to your house in the event all else fails and moving becomes essential to preserve your sanity.
I can see it now… Next up in the Shark Tank, me and The Kritter Kit! “So Sharks, who’s ready to squirrel away your next million?”