Squirrels invade many homes this time of year in search of a warm place to nest. After spelunking down the chimney they quickly find they can't climb back up the metal tube, though not for want of trying. When a squirrel dead-ends into a woodburning stove, as has happened at my house several times, you're launched into a crisis of priorities. After all, how much of your life would you care to rearrange to extract an imperiled rodent, and on whose timetable?
The last time a squirrel trapped itself in my chimney, I didn't know it until the animal descended into a live pit of fire. Horrified at its plight, but unwilling to release a burning rodent into the living room, I yanked the flue shut and the stove filled with thick black smoke. After clearing, it exposed a partially cooked rodent, quite dead.
So when I discovered another squirrel in the box this past October, I stopped in at Fireside Warmth and asked George for advice on getting a live squirrel out of a steel fireplace fronted with a window of glass.
"That's a tough one," said George. "Lot's of folks ask me about that." He described the usual solution for squirrel extraction, which is essentially providing an escape route for the animal. "Lower a rope down the chimney, all the way down to the fireplace. Bait it with peanut butter," he remarked, "All rodents like peanut butter."
The image of a hungry rodent ascending a rope in the dark crossed my mind, followed by diagram of lowering a rope down the 6' chimney. The shingled roof of my house has a steep pitch, 1:1 I believe, so even reaching the shiny chimney cap is not a trivial matter. It would require brackets and planks merely to stand on the roof. The increasing number of tasks required to rescue the rodent vexed me until I gave up in frustration. The rodent had been clever enough to find its way in, let it find its own way out or expire in the attempt.
Back in Woodstock a week later, I anticipated removing a dead squirrel from the fireplace. Well, surprise! A very live squirrel stared back at me when I shined my flashlight into the glass door. But this was a different one. Last week's invader lay dead in the bed of ashes. I had another rodent on my hands. All the difficulties of a rope rescue flashed across my mind again, and I decided that this squirrel was not going back up the chimney. It must come out the front door, preferably alive.
And just how, precisely, could I make that happen? I would build a squirrel extraction apparatus, as simply as possible, out of materials at hand. My first thought was that huge bag be wrapped around the firebox. If the animal could be lured in, the open end could be drawn shut and the bag ported outdoors, to release the squirrel.
Large plastic trash bags were the only kind at hand, but even the largest I had wouldn't gape open enough to swallow the firebox which measures 18 inches high by 24" wide. Another alternative would be wrapping the box with fabric, and like the trim-end of package, use the loose end to funnel the animal to...where? Ten feet of slate floor tile extended between the stove and the front door where the squirrel would have to exit if the extraction apparatus were to be worthy of the name.
From the lucky-zone of materials at hand, I found a 25-foot length of 4-inch corrugated plastic drainpipe. I also had a leftover roll of 4-foot wide, black landscape cloth. Landscape cloth easily wrapped the firebox. It was fastened with duct tape to close any possible escape route a frenzied squirrel might find. In front, I gathered the excess cloth to form a funnel.
Four-inch plastic drainpipe is light, flexible and easy to handle. A dab of peanut butter wiped around the interior end of the pipe served as bait. Inserting pipe into the cloth funnel, I joined the two with a double wrap of rope, checking the knots to close any escape route for the boxed rodent.
I ran the pipe out the front door, across the porch and down the 2 steps to the gravel driveway, making sure to point the open end (likewise baited with peanut butter) south, toward the sun and into the wind. I reasoned that the squirrel would respond to fresh air and the scent of peanut butter wafting in on the breeze.
At last the apparatus was ready. All that remained was to open the fireplace door and wait for the rodent to catch the aroma of fresh air and peanut butter. I hoped its desire to escape would overcome any fear of creeping into dark plastic places. In a space of 10 minutes all my doubts were dispelled.
I felt a slight shudder of the pipe as the squirrel dashed out. Opening up the cloth and shining a flashlight through the glass, I observed that the firebox stood empty of live rodents. Using fireplace tongs, I extracted last week's dead specimen and determined that it was male, before consigning it to the underbrush. I counted my Rube Goldberg handiwork a success, and proceeded to dismantle the squirrel extraction apparatus, considering the job done.
That was a type of premature conclusion stemming more from wishful thinking than from observation and experience. What I hadn't planned on was the pair-bonding between squirrels.
When I arrived again 5 days later, another squirrel had squirmed into the firebox, left it's frantic but futile pawprints on the dusty glass, and then curled up to die in the bed of ash. On examination it was female, and I suspect the same female that I had freed the previous week with the squirrel apparatus. That female had had prominent almond shaped eyes, and though they were half-closed and glassy in death, so did the dead female I was holding in my hand.
Assuming that the second squirrel followed the first, found him dead, and then was miraculously freed by human intervention, what could have drawn her to venture down the chimney again? Did she not remember her mate was dead? Did she not remember being trapped for days? Unaware of how she was freed, but finding herself free and able to feed, why did she choose to do it a second time? And is choose the correct term, or should it be motivated? What motivated her to descend again into that dusty box where her mate had died? A memory of peanut-buttery freedom?
The human mind conjures reasons where it desires reasons to be. But a squirrel...?++