My home is an animal magnet. Which probably sounds like a much nicer proposition than it actually is. I mean it’s cool, if you like animals. I prefer my local wildlife to stay outside.
When I first moved in, the mail seemed to suggest this place had been a veterinary practice before my arrival – perhaps that’s why it still seems to draw all creatures great and small from far and wide. They sense it’s a sanctuary. Sometimes it feels like Noah’s Ark in here.
Over the years this house has hosted a plethora of plagues – pharaohs, flies, spiders, wasps (I’m still waiting for the locusts of the Apocalypse – I’m sure they’re on their way). But the scourge of sciurids – topped off with Puss in Boots’ great escape – is still my favourite.
It all began when my old housemate Janine started complaining about strange noises in her bedroom at night. “It’s like… scratching,” she whispered. “In the walls.” I looked into her wide, earnest eyes and couldn’t discern any kind of madness there. So I just glossed over the comment – although it was clearly kind of weird.
Soon she was claiming that whatever was clawing the walls had now also taken to scuttling back and forth across the ceiling – “It sounds pretty big,” she added – but I hadn’t heard a sausage next door. “Every night I hear them!” she whispered, her gaze darting anxiously around her room. “Why can’t you hear them too?” I thought it best not to answer.
Things continued in this vein for a few weeks until one evening, something rather alarming happened. We’d both just got in from work and as Janine made her way upstairs she stopped in front of the bathroom. “Nadia,” she called down to me. “You need to see this.” So I joined her in the doorway.
A scene of devastation lay before us. Toiletry bottles and razor blades were scattered every which way (the steel rack they were usually stored in had been tossed in the tub); the towels had been dragged off the rail and across the floor; and there was shampoo and – was that urine? – splashed across the tiles.
It pretty much looked like someone had burgled the bathroom, p***ed up the walls, and dropped the mic.
As we stood there trying to piece together what the hell had happened that night, I spotted something else on the floor: splinters of wood. I traced them back to the boiler cupboard, where I discovered a medium-sized hole had been gnawed through the bottom right-hand corner. Janine’s bedroom lies on the other side of that cupboard wall. Suddenly, the penny dropped.
“There’s a squirrel in the loft,” I said. “I’ve seen it going up and down the fence in the garden. It’s big.” Janine looked lost. “Those noises you’ve been hearing – it’s the sound of the squirrel working its way through the floor of the loft and down into the boiler cupboard. And now it’s chewed its way into the house.”
Now I’d heard a few horror stories about squirrels in my time – apparently, they’re as vicious as Rottweilers and once they latch onto your flesh, they’re almost impossible to flick off. My friend Liz had some in her loft once and she said the guy who came to get them out again was practically wearing a suit of armour. He probably looked more like a dragon slayer than pest control – “How big does he think this squirrel is?” she must have wondered – but presumably it was standard kit.
We didn’t have any chain mail at our disposal. And there was a psycho squirrel on the loose that could now be lurking anywhere on the premises. So obviously, we jumped in the car and hid in Ikea.
Over the next few days we tried leaving a trail of nuts to the open window, but every night, Janine would still hear the scratching in the walls (the squirrel just took its takeaways back upstairs. Perhaps he thought it was room service). We showered in fear, expecting our new housemate to strike as we reached for the soap. Toilet trips became a dice with death; we soon learned to use our bladders sparingly. We entered the bathroom at our own peril – it was like playing Russian roulette.
One morning I came downstairs to make a cup of tea, and as I switched on the kettle, I noticed that my tulips had been trampled. On closer inspection, I realised the whole garden had been trampled. What’s more, the fence on the right had been smashed through – and so had the one on the left. Luckily, the nice man whose garden backs onto mine waved me over. “They ambushed your neighbour’s house last night,” he explained. “You didn’t hear anything?” I stood there blinking blankly as he clasped his head in disbelief.
“There were illegal immigrants hiding in your bushes!” he exclaimed. “There were cops and sniffer dogs rummaging through your flowerbeds! There were helicopters and searchlights swooping all over your yard! You didn’t hear anything at all?!”
I hadn’t heard a peep – my room’s on the other side of the house. But Janine should have heard the entire thing – the drama had unfolded right beneath her window. “Oh I thought I heard some sort of scuffle while I was sleeping,” she said casually once I’d filled her in. “But I didn’t really pay it much attention – I guess I just thought it was the squirrel again.”
Okay now I was nervous – I mean how big must this mutant be for her to mistake the commotion of a dawn raid for Squirrel Nutkin‘s nightly antics? It was definitely time to call a knight in shining armour.
I was very disappointed when he showed up in a bog-standard shirt and trousers. “Where’s the rest of your outfit?” I thought. “You’re going to die up there!” But he disappeared into the loft and set some traps. When he returned a few days later, he retrieved not just one full-grown grey squirrel, but two, along with six offspring. No wonder Janine had been hearing so many noises.
The rodents were going berserk in their wire mesh prisons, thrashing about all over the place as they went out of their minds with fear. But the worst part was the screaming. Did you even know that squirrels could scream? I had no idea – it’s a horrendous sound. The babies were extremely distressed – their shrieks were shrill and anguished and very, very human. It was really quite upsetting, and I think the exterminator sensed my unease.
“I’ve got a fox cub in the van,” he said suddenly. “It’s a beautiful little thing – not like the mangy urban foxes you get round here. Would you like to see it?” Of course I’d like to see it – get rid of these screeching tree rats and bring me the cute, fluffy fox! That would make everything better! And it really was such a pretty sight to behold.
It was so quiet and calm in its cage, but its eyes were full of sorrow. “Please set me free,” they seemed to implore to the exterminator. So he did.
It should have been like that scene in Born Free when they release the lion back into the wild. But this was not the Serengeti – this was Croydon, and there was certainly no Hollywood ending.
I’d envisaged the fox heading straight for the lawn, to frolic like a kitten in the sun. Instead, it veered sharply to the left, face-first into the fence, where it repeatedly attempted to head-butt its way to freedom. Over and over and over again it rammed its tiny head into the wood, knocking itself senseless in a blind panic. As the pest controller ran towards it, the terrified animal shot into the shed.
Cue much swearing, cajoling and clattering as ladders, paint cans and gardening tools were tipped over and tripped over in his cack-handed quest to catch the cub in the dark. Sooo many F-bombs. It sounded like a WrestleMania match in there – and Puss in Boots won. After about five minutes, he scampered out and squeezed through a tiny gap in the fence – he was outta there.
Defeated, the pest controller finally emerged, clothes torn, panting and sweating and covered in cobwebs – and blood. He was cradling one of his hands; the tip of his little finger was hanging by a thread. “Have you got a plaster?” he asked sheepishly. “I think you might need a sewing kit,” I said. That, and a rabies jab.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy Commuter Critters: Human Wildlife on London Transport