Squirrels: A Political Allegory [UPDATED]

April 28, 2009 at 8:07 am (By Amba)

One morning early this month, I noticed that my cats were riveted by something outside the glass porch door.  Two sawed-off young squirrels, perfect miniatures not half the size of a grown one, plumy tails carried forward over their backs like comb-overs, were apparently taunting the cats — leaping on the screen, running up and down it, all but sticking out their tongues and flapping tiny fingers.  They were either too young and dumb to know what a cat was, or they were smart enough to understand that these couldn’t get at them.  They were having fun.

I had what a soft-hearted, mush-headed human being thinks is a good idea:  I threw a handful of birdseed on the porch from last year’s failed bird feeder (which was, of course, taken over by squirrels) to keep them coming.  Everyone was having such a good time.  No harm, no foul.

And of course, they kept coming with a vengeance, sometimes two, sometimes just one, vacuuming up the birdseed and giving the cats’ nervous systems a workout.

I don’t know when it happened, but this morning I looked out and saw two young squirrels of very different sizes.  One was about 2/3 the size of an adult and the other was tiny, about 1/3 the size.  And lo and behold, the hefty one was driving away the little one.  He/she/it seemed almost more interested in defending its territory than in eating:  every time the tiny, obviously very hungry (to a human’s imagination) squirrel ventured timidly towards the food, the big one aggressively chased it off.  Only then would the hefty one return to eating, literally scooping the seeds together with its paws and shoveling them into its mouth.

There are two possibilities here.  One is that we have two siblings, one of whom is succeeding at the other’s expense.  Happens all the time in nature.  Two or three cubs or kits or chicks are born and the balance tips early on:  one or more gain an edge and use that greater strength to gain more and more strength until the the weak ones starve to death.  Baby birds of many species in the nest will even shove their weaker sibling overboard, or peck him/her to death.  Parents do not intervene.  It’s a jungle out there, and you have to be capable of looking out for yourself.

The other possibility is that the little one is simply younger, a baby squirrel from another, later litter, and the big one is chasing away a genetically unrelated (or less-related) competitor.  In that case, it’s just a matter of first come, first served.  Who said life was fair?

Having already screwed with nature by putting out this unnatural treasure trove of food, now what (if anything) do I do?  The point is not what I do, but the political correlates of my conflicting impulses.

Do I let the cats out?  You know what would happen — not what I intended:  they would get the little one.  (But then at least its existence wouldn’t be for naught.   They also serve who only die and are eaten.)

Do I intervene on behalf of the little one, driving the big one away?  This would be the liberal solution, but also the Christian one.  God created all and He loves the weak — with their less obvious, less material strengths — even more than the strong.  He just has an awfully funny way of showing it.  But He created soft-hearted humans and bags of birdseed to redress the imbalance.

Or do I (pretending I haven’t already skewed things) “let nature take its course,” even secretly admiring its ruthless efficiency at selecting the most resourceful and robust?

Is the big squirrel the better businessman who drives inefficient competitors out of town?  Or the amoral businessbrute who will do whatever it takes to succeed?  Is it Bill Gates, enforcing the de facto monopoly of mediocrity that he got by being first out of the gate?  Is it Wal-Mart, using the size it has already gained to prevent start-ups from getting market share?  Is it an African kleptocrat stealing all the aid while the intended beneficiaries starve?

What I do:  throw more handfuls of seed out there (bailing out General Motors?  no, that would be an old, toothless squirrel) in the hope that Biggie will get so full that he/she staggers off belching before all the food is gone.  And that’s exactly what happens:  the little one gets a chance!  But whether because it is younger or weaker, it is indeed an inefficient eater, picking up seeds slowly, one at a time, and leaving before it has made much of a dent in the remainder.

You just can’t help some squirrels.  Even God helps those who help themselves.

~ amba

UPDATE: Just spoke to a friend, the same one referenced in the post on saving newspapers.  I helped him write a foundation mission statement, and in the process learned a great deal about the futility, if not harmfulness, of much development aid.  Out of the blue, he happened to tell me that in a project he once supported in Haiti, where an idealistic doctor is trying to produce peanut butter to nourish children’s brains in the crucial years up to age 5, even if they manage to get the peanut butter made and distributed to homes, the children’s stronger older siblings steal the peanut butter from the little ones and eat it themselves.


  1. Theo Boehm said,


  2. GN said,

    Amba’s little “stimulus package” experiment”. However, why didn’t you require the bigger squirrel to resign?

  3. callimachus said,


  4. GN said,


  5. PatHMV said,

    The more I watch animals interact with each other, the more convinced I am that we humans are not nearly as far ahead of them as we like to think. Many of the things we think we do for entirely rational reasons are in fact simply animal instincts; our brain merely devises rationalizations for our behaviors.

    P.S. My solution would have been to pop the bigger squirrel with an underpowered BB gun from another window. But if the little squirrel just can’t eat fast enough, he’s likely to join the legions who serve by dying to be eaten, no matter what you do.

  6. chickenlittle said,

    My daughter is fostering a stray mother and four kittens from the pound. Of the original four, two have died. I’m sure the technology exists to have saved them (a human would have received intubation). Yet we chose not to, essentially because it would have meant 24/7 monitoring and removal of the tube to nurse, etc. The two little cats died of asphyxiation.

    Of the two survivors, one is noticeably bigger, and obviously got/gets the greater share of the milk at the expense of his siblings. The mother cat did nothing to prevent this. I think it’s important for kids to learn these life, death, & survival lessons, the same ones you bring up, at an early age, and sooner rather than later.

    Something else cat related: Our oldest of two adult cats is litter-trained but he has always preferred doing his business outdoors, which is just fine with me. However, he also developed the nasty habit of waking one of us between 3 or 4 AM to go out. This eventually led to us shutting him in the garage overnight, which I neglected to do last night. At about 3 AM this morning, I was awakened by his meows, and got up to let him out. A half hour later, after I had fallen back asleep, I was suddenly startled awake by the sound of a cat fight just outside our bedroom. I sprang out of bed and dashed to the patio door. I found it open and my wife outside shooing away a stray cat, while ours cowered in fear.

    Did neutering our male cat weaken his ability to defend his own backyard against other invading cats, especially male ones? Is an emasculated male vulnerable to external threats, particularly male ones? I’ve read that neutering reduces a male cat’s tendency to become aggressively territorial, but I’m not sure if that translates to a weaker defense instinct of his own territory. I suppose if the answer is yes, it’s too late to do much. I’m left with the following choices:

    Do I lock our cat inside every night in the garage? This cedes the territory to the invader. Hell, it actually cedes my territory to an unwelcomed guest?

    Do I get all Rambo with my son’s night vision googles and a pellet gun-not to kill or maim it-but just to scare it away for good?

    Do I try and live-trap the invader and find out to whom it belongs, and then have a chat with the owner/responsible party?

  7. blake said,


    FWIW, we’ve always neutered our male cats and it’s never interfered with their ability to scrap. Well, maybe it has at some level, but I’ve seen plenty of neutered males do well.

  8. PatHMV said,

    chickenlittle… when in doubt, going all Rambo is always the right option!

    But seriously, not sure there’s any good options for you there. My first instinct is to see if it happens again before making any definitive decisions. Maybe the interloper was just passing through, and won’t come back. Live-trapping may be the next-best option, but of course it’s entirely possible that the invading cat is a stray or one “owned” (i.e., fed) by several neighbors, none of whom are really responsible for it (or perhaps it is, but like many cats is tagless and thus untraceable)… and of course the owner may be a jerk and unwilling to do the right thing, forcing you to decide whether to call the pound on the cat or the cops on him.

    But going back to the Rambo option, maybe it’s not such a bad idea. Get your son to help you, and teach him about responsible protection of one’s property.

    Another option before live-trapping would be to rig up some sort of sensor camera. I saw in a recent issue of a cool magazine called Make instructions for rigging up a camera (and an auto-flash, or maybe it removed the IR filter from a digital camera), attaching it to a computer, and setting it to take automatic photos of backyard invaders. That would also be a cool project to work on with your son, and it would let you see, before trapping it, whether it had a tag or if you recognized it.

  9. Ennui said,

    “Do I intervene on behalf of the little one, driving the big one away? This would be the liberal solution,”

    Yours is more of a charitable solution, in my mind. The liberal solution would be to dig up the larger one’s cache of nuts and redistribute them to the little one.

    If I were an American politician I’d put the birdseed in some sort of enclosure that the bigger squirrel couldn’t get in. A kind of squirrel “means testing” device, as it were. Although, now I think about it, the little squirrel didn’t sound terribly motivated. He may not even be one of the deserving poor. I’d place it on a chair or something so he’d have to climb at least.

    By the way, in Soviet Russia the squirrels give food to You! Budump bump. er. oy. I think I hurt myself.

  10. chickenlittle said,

    Thanks for the quick reply. I forgot to mention that this has been a problem for a couple of weeks now, and isn’t the first encounter with this interloper. There is only one other outdoor cat owner around that I’m aware of, and she says that she doesn’t have have one matching the description.

    We have coyotes around here not too far away (but not in the neighborhood). I wish one would make a nice meal of the interloper one of these nights.

  11. Donna B. said,

    My daughter had to recently get rid of her neutered male cat after he became a nuisance at night to the neighbors (even “breaking and entering” through a doggie door and terrorizing a family indoor cat one night).

    After several months of trying to make this cat an indoor cat, he turned on my daughter, scratching and biting and being generally destructive. After attempts to find a country outdoor home for him, they finally took him to the pound.

    Sometimes… there’s no good answer.

  12. amba12 said,

    Chickenlittle — The way I spoil my cats, I’d probably get up at 3-4 AM to let him out, grumbling all the while. I’m embarrassed to tell you what I do for my cats.

    But seriously,

    Live-trapping and neutering the intruder would at least even the score. (Heh.) Best, probably, turning him over to a shelter that would neuter him AND remove him from the neighborhood, a no-kill shelter if you don’t want his blood on your hands. Presuming from the behavior that it’s a him.

    Cats that are neutered seem to do quite well at defending their territory (depending of course on temperament; some cats are dominant and some subordinate and easily cowed). What they don’t do is aggress — go looking for trouble. It’s cats that are declawed that really cannot protect themselves and need to be kept indoors.

  13. amba12 said,

    P.S. You think you’ve got trouble now, if you had not neutered your male cat you would probably have parted company with him long ago. We had a couple of intact male cats over the years. Not to put too fine a point on it, they piss all over your belongings, because they mark their territory, and their urine has a special, recognizable, mildly skunky smell.

  14. amba12 said,


    You crack me up.

  15. amba12 said,

    Pat: I agree with you about some embarrassingly huge percentage of human behavior being animal behavior with rationalization icing. What escapes? Art, philosophy, and science? Art is mostly about human-animal behavior, which is the kind we feel passionate about, and science is mostly vastly advanced tool-using. That leaves philosophy?

  16. Icepick said,

    Speaking of the properties of cat pee….

    Incidentally, this also proved that some things simply CAN’T be spoofed. The South Park spoof of Heavy Metal is nowhere near as silly or juevnile as the movie.

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