Old-timers still shudder when they recall the Great Squirrel War. Four long years it was, human against rodent, neither side giving an inch. Atrocities? Yes, there were atrocities. Chemical warfare, too.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.
Jefferson District Park in Falls Church is a bucolic place, with a nine-hole golf course, tennis and basketball courts, and picnic tables. The park is fringed with so many trees that it’s easy to forget you’re just a long tee shot from the Beltway.
Where there are trees, there are squirrels. One large tree just outside the golf course’s clubhouse has always been full of the critters. For years, things at Jefferson seemed in balance: the squirrels chittering in the branches and scampering in the rough; the humans bending over their Titleists.
The squirrels seemed friendly. A little too friendly.
“Little by little it started to escalate to where the squirrels were getting so friendly they were coming up to people,” remembered Karen Sparks, who became the golf course’s general manager in 2001. “People started feeding them.”
This is when Jefferson Park’s prelapsarian equilibrium was disrupted. The squirrels started to see humans not as two-legged, plaid-wearing, club-wielding threats, but as sources of easy sustenance.
Golfers are notoriously snackish. They often squirrel away — if you will — bags of peanuts or packs of crackers or granola or candy bars to munch on. The squirrels sensed this.
“They would literally crawl up people’s pants legs if they could smell peanuts in their pocket,” Karen said.
“You’d get out of your car in the parking lot, and here they’d come,” said Diane Gannon, a Jefferson Park regular whose husband, Tom, was a volunteer marshal.
Not even bags were safe. When golfers dropped off their clubs at the bag drop, the squirrels pounced.
“I had a brand new golf bag that I had to guard constantly,” Diane said. Several times she emerged from the clubhouse to spy bushy tails sticking out of the pockets of her bags. These were not decorative head covers. These were ravenous squirrels.
Huge, ravenous squirrels. A diet of human junk food had not been kind to their physiques.
“They were so fat,” Diane said. “I’ve never seen such fat squirrels in my life. They were kind of scary fat.”
Anything that contained traces of people food was fair game. One squirrel tugged a golf towel from a bag, then scampered up to the clubhouse roof, clutching its trophy like King Kong with Fay Wray.
Memories differ on what exactly the squirrel did when it got up there. Some say it ate the towel. Others say it humped it. Whatever it was, it was distressing to the assembled golfers, who were tired of being shaken down for their cheese crackers and watching their golf bags get shredded by sharp little rodent teeth.
One attorney even demanded restitution from Fairfax County for the two bags the squirrels had destroyed. (He was unsuccessful in getting a settlement.)
Diane said she knew things were out of hand when she noticed cornstalks growing in the flower beds near the clubhouse. Someone was feeding dried corn to the squirrels. The squirrels had planted the kernels. A crop was coming in.
Obviously, something had to be done. The first thing Karen did was put up some signs: “Please Don’t Feed the Squirrels.”
She researched natural squirrel deterrents. “I got this spray that’s supposed to be urine from some animal and sprayed it around the edge of the porch,” she said. “But it kind of stained everything.”
Karen also wasn’t too crazy about spraying urine on her porch, so she stopped that.
“I read online that if you take cinnamon and cayenne pepper and mix that all together that really bothers their noses,” she said. She sprinkled the concoction around the bottom of the clubhouse tree and encouraged golfers to put sachets of it in their bags.
That may have helped, but Karen knew she had to go after the root cause: Gloria.
Gloria was a regular at the course, an octogenarian — since deceased — who loved feeding the squirrels, even when told not to.
“She said, ‘Oh, they were here before we were,’ ” Karen said. “She’d bring peanuts out. The more she fed them — and there were others that fed them, too — the more aggressive they would get.”
Finally, Karen issued Gloria an ultimatum: “I said, ‘I tell you what. If I see you feed the squirrels, the next time somebody’s bag gets chewed into, I will tell them your phone number.’ I think that’s what finally got to her.”
Peace returned to Jefferson District Park.
And peaceful it remains. Karen retired in 2012. Jonathan Casey is the manager now.
“They’re still here in abundance, but they don’t seem to be as aggressive anymore,” he said of the squirrels.
Still, the “Please Don’t Feed the Squirrels” signs remain up, a reminder of the uneasy truce.
8 For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.