Yellow police tape bordered the playground at Montgomery County's Wheaton Regional Park yesterday, and families were being turned away to safer grounds. After two attacks and a bloody altercation over the past two weeks, park officials weren't taking any chances.
If the squirrels want the playground bad enough to bite for it, then it's all theirs.
"The squirrels are just acting squirrelly now," said park maintenance worker Kathy Lowe. "They are so busy burying acorns they are aggravated at the people."
Indeed. Two children have suffered minor squirrel bites at the park over the past two weeks, and on Thursday police officers from the Maryland-National Park and Planning Commission were summoned after a man, annoyed at one animal's arrogance, bludgeoned it with a stick, Lowe said.
Park police Sgt. Timothy Boyle said his officers came armed with a shotgun and support from the county Animal Control Board, but could not find the offending animal.
Rather than risk any more casualties in the war of man against nature, man retreated a little bit. Visitors to the popular park's playground area were greeted yesterday with the discomforting yellow tape used at crime scenes, and a sign that read: "Playground closed due to over aggressive squirrels."
"The squirrels from hell," mused one passerby, staring at the half-dozen or so of the critters that scampered around the empty swings and slides. It is not clear when the playground will reopen, said Boyle, although the rest of the sprawling park, just outside the Capital Beltway, remains open.
The problem, said Lowe, Boyle and other park employees, is apparently food.
A bumper crop of acorns over the past two years has produced a bumper crop of gray squirrels, which mate twice a year when food is abundant. The plethora of squirrels has already been noted by local wildlife observers who have seen more than the usual number squashed by cars.
Those that have survived the highways are apparently more determined than ever to make it through winter, and are gathering food with particular fervor, Lowe said.
When park patrons offer food, as was the case with both of the children who were bitten, the animals move in close and don't take no for an answer, Lowe said. One employee familiar with an incident two weeks ago said a 2-year-old girl had dropped a Chicken McNugget and was trying to pick it up just as a squirrel also lunged for it.
"People are feeding the squirrels . . . and when they get fed and there is no more food, they go after the people," Boyle said.
Although squirrels can carry rabies, Lowe said they are not as much of a threat in that regard as raccoons, foxes and some other animals.
Still, caution was the word. As Vickie Walter and her son Michael, 5, strolled away in search of another playground, she said she felt officials had overreacted in closing the playground on a sunny fall weekend.
"I was told they had jumped on people and taken sandwiches out of their back pack," she said. "I'd be willing to take my chances."