Squirrels, John Adcock Jr. says, are very adept at breaking and entering.
“They carry around the keys to your house in the front of their mouth,” said Adcock, of Adcock’s Trapping Service, headquartered in College Park. “Their teeth are more than capable of eating your roof, knocking a hole in it in about 45 minutes to an hour.”
This is the thorn in the rose that is Squirrel Week. This is the ugly underbelly of squirrels. They may look cute when they’re flitting from tree to tree like circus acrobats. They are not so cute when they have chewed a hole in your soffit, birthed a litter of babies in your attic, then burned your house down after gnawing on a live wire.
Of course, if they didn’t do those things, John Adcock wouldn’t have a job.
“We’ve probably trapped close to 100,000 squirrels in the D.C. metro area — or probably more than that — over the past 40 years,” said John, 51. “I’ve been doing it since I was a little kid.”
John is the son of John Adcock Sr., who founded the wildlife removal company in the 1960s. Early on, Senior’s customers were farmers eager to rid their fields and orchards of crop-eating animals. As our area became more suburban, his client base evolved into homeowners.
Like any trapper, Adcock’s company deals with all sorts of animals — snakes, bats, rats — but squirrels are the reason for most of the calls they get, both eastern gray and flying. John Jr. is well versed in their behavior, the noise they make (“like a bowling tournament in your attic”) and the caution with which they must be approached.
“You’ve got to know when to hold them and know when to fold them,” he said. “When you’ve got a bad handle on a squirrel, it’s safer to release them.”
In the old days, his employees wore leather welder’s gloves, which weren’t enough to prevent broken skin from an angry squirrel’s incisor. Today they use Kevlar gloves.
Adcock said most of the squirrels he traps are driven to a location 10 to 20 miles away to be released. That isn’t the case everywhere in the United States, said Stephen Vantassel of the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Some jurisdictions insist that home-invading squirrels either be let loose near the house from which they were taken — it’s too cruel to take them miles away — or euthanized.
Squirrels — and what to do with them — can cause heated disputes.
“You have some people who say kill them all and let God sort them out,” Vantassel said. “Then other groups say every animal is sacred. I’m in the middle. There are places where you need to manage populations and control their damage, but we need to protect the species from being exterminated. To me it’s a species level, not an individual animal level.”
Before entering academia, Vantassel ran a trapping service in Springfield, Mass.
“I love squirrels,” he said. “That was half my business. I slow down for them.”
Vantassel said it’s relatively simple to prevent squirrel damage. “But Americans don’t believe in prevention,” he groused. “We don’t do anything until there’s a crisis.”
The first order of business is to make sure that if you have a birdfeeder it’s modified to prevent squirrel access. Feeding squirrels causes populations to rise, Vantassel said, producing larger litters.
“Those squirrels have to go somewhere,” he said. “A warm house beats a tree any day of the week.”
And homeowners should make sure their dwellings are squirrel-tight, with no holes or cavities. Screen vents and install high-quality chimney caps. He also recommends cutting trees back from the house.
Vantassel has often pondered the uncomfortable place the wildlife trapper occupies in the American psyche. He thinks that as animals have been “Disneyfied,” the people who catch — and, yes, sometimes kill — them have been vilified.
“This is the Pied Piper problem,” Vantassel said. “The Pied Piper was popular until the rats were gone. Once the rats were gone the Pied Piper was history. And this is one reason why the wildlife control industry does not get respect, because once the problem is over we’re a memory. People don’t want to think about us anymore. When we deal with wildlife damage we remind people of their own mortality.
“Everyone knows that we’re needed, but no one loves us. They’re not gonna invite us to the party, not going to make us heroes. We do what they don’t want to deal with.”
Sobering stuff. It reminded me of Jack Nicholson’s speech in “A Few Good Men,” or a version of it:
“Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have holes. And through those holes come small mammals. Those walls need to be guarded by men with traps. Who’s gonna do it? You? . . . You have the luxury of not knowing what I know.
“Squirrels? You can’t handle the squirrels!”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.