Why did this New York City man begin inviting squirrels into his apartment, to crawl on his head and hide nuts in his drawers?
Photo credit: Keith
"I first came up with the idea with A." -- that's an ex-girlfriend -- "who saw a squirrel sitting on top of my air conditioner one morning, outside, of course, and she thought he was cute," says the man, whom we'll call Keith, since he asked us not to reveal his real name due to a concern about professional repercussions. "So I had this idea of putting out some bird seed or nuts to keep them at the window."
It was "2008 or 2009," says Keith, who works from home at his small downtown apartment, on the upper floor of a walkup building, and says that it didn't take long for him to develop a fondness for his furry visitor. He bought different kinds of nuts in bulk from Trader Joe's, "then I started to play a game."
Keith put the goodies inside his window sill, "then I'd drop a couple nuts on the little table next to the window and he'd venture there. After a little while he's be comfy and when I dropped the nuts on the floor he'd venture there."
"He" by then was multiple squirrels. Keith can't remember how many, exactly -- but he does recall learning that each squirrel had its own favorite snack.
"If they liked the filberts more than the almonds, they'd begin to find places to bury the nuts in my apartment. But I have hardwood floors so it was challenging," says Keith. "In the morning when they came, we'd feed them from the bed." On the weekends, if Keith and A. were sleeping in, one of the squirrels would start scratching at the window screen for a meal.
The relationship with A. didn't last. The relationship with the squirrels did. Keith set his sights on a deeper intimacy: feeding them by hand, then having them climb up his leg, then his shoulder, then his head.
"It was total joy," says Keith. "I think they're cute to begin with. And each one has his or her own little personality, comfort level, fear... And being they were coming in all the time and taking so many nuts, even more than they could eat, they started burying their booty all over. What I found most hysterical is that they could literally bury one say, on top of my bedspread. and they'd dig a little bit of a depression, drop the nut, and then go thru the motions of sweeping pretend dirt over them. So what was left was simply a nut on top of a bedspread."
Keith developed observations about squirrel pecking orders, he figured out to always wear a shirt if the squirrels were going to ascend him, due to their "razor-sharp claws."
The squirrels had some growing to do, too. "Every new squirrel needs to learn that the tips of your fingers aren't nuts," says Keith.
There was heartbreak, as might seem inevitable, when one squirrel turned up injured -- Keith suspects the squirrel's own mother had thrown him off a ledge -- and he "died on the operating table" at an uptown wildlife veterinary clinic.
And there's been the occasional other problem as well. One squirrel took to peeing inside the apartment, for example. And, because he's single and dating, it can be an issue that some women think the squirrels are "disgusting," says Keith. "But everyone's kind of fascinated."
Photo credit: Keith
The Humane Society says it's "generally harmless" to feed squirrels -- though the group advises against hand-feeding. Keith says he isn't concerned at all about disease, nor is he too worried that his regular guests are going to become over-dependent on his store-bought handouts (or anything else).
"I used to have people come up and put nuts outside when I would leave. But I don't anymore," he says, explaining that the squirrels are companions but aren't pets in the sense of a cat or a dog.
He doesn't name them, by and large, and "I'm done with caring about them when I'm not home. I'm positive they'll be fine. Maybe a little more hungry that day, but nothing to get too concerned about," he says. "And let's face it. It's a squirrel."
It would appear that the squirrels have a parallel attitude toward the human. Keith went traveling for several weeks last fall. And the squirrels failed to return when he came back to New York.
"It's not as if i can call them and they'll come," says Keith.
What would he even say, were he to call them, since they don't have names?
But even if they lack a formal commitment, Keith and the squirrels aren't done with each other quite yet. Last week, after that long hiatus, one showed up at his window.
Keith is convinced that the little guy -- who gobbled down what was left from a five-month-old dish of mixed nuts and has been provided a fresh-bought supply since -- was born last summer, and knows the ropes from having watched his mother's frequent feedings as an infant.
"I know it's the same squirrel because he came right in and jumped on my shoulder," says Keith. "That would take a month or two of constant training if it was a new one."
Do you have an animal story to share? Want to meet Keith and his squirrels? Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org